One of the great contemporary Chinese filmmakers is currently Jia Zhangke, who made A Touch of Sin (2013), one of my favourites of the decade. His interest in small people dwarfed by huge government building programmes or infrastructure projects seems to run through his films, and is certainly evident in the screenshots (seen here) of the three narrative feature films (and one documentary) I’m reviewing in this post, all from the 2000s. However, more than that, they seem to be about people who are alienated from their society, or otherwise find difficulties in being connected, people who slip out of the system or are trying to keep in touch despite enormous societal changes going on around them.
There are no shortage of challenging documentaries about Chinese history (such as last year’s Dead Souls), many of which get a little bit too political for the Chinese state. However, films like Turtle Rock take a less overtly political viewpoint in tracking the rhythms of life in a small Chinese village. (NB Although the main credited director, Xiao Xiao, is a man, the co-director/producer is a woman, Lin Lin, hence my use of the ‘directed by a woman’ tag and inclusion on related lists.)
There’s such an enormous range of documentaries in the world, it’s ridiculous to put this in even the same category as something you might find hyped on Netflix. In its textures and its setting, this is far closer to a filmmaker like Lav Diaz — it is, after all, very much in the vein of ‘slow cinema’, with long tracking shots in lush black-and-white, with very little in the way of narrative to drive it. That said, it’s not boring: it presents this small mountainous village (where the director grew up), the rhythms of daily life and ritual, the gossip amongst the inhabitants, and little vignettes of their existence. Bamboo cropping early on provides the indelible sight of these enormously long stalks being carried precariously by a man and woman to a truck in the background, but the film manages to find wonderful images throughout, whether misty vistas or close-ups on pets, looming haggard faces crunching through nuts, or a woman chopping up garlic and chillis while haranguing an unseen neighbour about his poor tiling skills. It tends to avoid any overt political commentary aside from the postscript that this community had been formed many generations ago by those escaping mid-20th century war, and one imagines there have been many hardships over the intervening years, but people in the film seem to be getting along just fine without much of the modern world.
Directors Xiao Xiao 蕭瀟 and Lin Lin 林林; Cinematographer Xiao; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Monday 21 January 2019.
This Friday sees a UK cinematic release for Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son, which I saw at the London Film Festival a few months ago. I’ve already done one themed week around films about China (generally Taiwanese or Hong Kong films, or otherwise films not themselves produced by China). However, China is an enormous country with a great deal of varied filmmaking, and has a long and rich history and culture, so it’s worth returning there for a second themed week. This one will have more films actually made in and by the Chinese, although as ever there are films which aren’t exactly sanctioned by the state, and that’s the case with this film, about China’s controversial ‘One Child Policy’.
A powerful film combining the personal testimony of the filmmaker(s) with documentary footage uncovering the extent of the “One Child Policy” in China, which ran from 1979-2015. Nanfu Wang seems to be the dominant voice on the film, but it’s co-directed with Jialing Zhang (or Lynn Zhang, who was also involved in the 2017 documentary Complicit about the lack of environmental protections afforded to Chinese workers), and the film is prompted by the birth of Wang’s child. We see, in pretty graphic terms at times, how the policy affected generations of Chinese families, leading to forced abortions and even infanticide; we see too the propaganda aimed at encouraging families to follow the policy; and then there are the many layers of government, both national, regional and local, aimed at enforcing it. Clearly some areas were more ruthless than others (one interviewee recounts how there are two children in her family because of rather more lax rules in rural areas), but there’s also a persuasive picture of how the policy dovetailed with patriarchal attitudes, meaning a huge number of young girls were essentially sold or taken into “orphanages”, which then placed these children with overseas families, and one strand of the documentary deals with a couple helping to track down such children. It’s a sad film, but a fascinating one nonetheless.
Directors Nanfu Wang 王男栿 and Jialing Zhang [or Lynn Zhang] 张嘉玲; Cinematographer Wang and Yuanchen Liu; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Wednesday 16 October 2019.
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.
Jonas Mekas isn’t making slow cinema, but seems to be going for a truer form of autobiographical reflection, one that requires time — a lot of time — to convey. After all, he’s spent his life’s work documenting the world around him from his point of view, so he has a lot of material to work with, and he was almost 80 when he put together this magnum opus.
Jonas Mekas is a playful filmmaker (or “filmer” as he prefers it on the voiceover — though he’s involved in every level of his craft, so he seems to me more a “maker” than many). In this film, divided into 12 chapters, he pops up on the voiceover, an elderly man explaining how this film is his life, how these are his memories, how he (and his children) are in every frame, and then, also, to tell us it’s a film about nothing. Nothing happens, he says, and occasionally also flashes up a written placard saying the same (when it doesn’t say “this film is political”). It’s true that the prospect of five hours of what amounts to home movies isn’t enticing, but Mekas with his little Bolex camera has developed a fully-fledged aesthetic, and it’s one that seems perfectly suited to the idea of memories, fragmentary glimpses of another life (his own life), largely from the 70s and 80s as far as I can tell from what’s in here, and largely in NYC. So in fact, it’s all beautifully composed, fragmented, layered, with voiceover and snippets of music, it’s like the playfulness of Godard’s pomp without the overweening self-seriousness and intellectualising. This is a beautiful assemblage.
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Jonas Mekas; Length 288 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Tuesday 1 May 2018.
Harking back to last week’s musical theme is this concert film of Aretha Franklin in 1972. Despite being filmed at the time, there were technical issues to deal with, not to mention Franklin herself, and was only released finally last year. As it is essentially a gospel concert filmed in a church, with contributions from Franklin’s own father and others in the same tradition, it provides a slice of African-American religious experience, albeit one that has been elevated and curated for a quite different audience.
We see director Sydney Pollack near the start, chatting to his camera operators as the church is set up, and then throughout the film we see him from time to time gesticulating wildly to get his cameramen to pick out something happening in the audience or away from centre stage. Indeed, because this concert was filmed in a church, there’s not really any space to hide and so, unlike many concert films, there are a lot of shots where we can clearly see all the cameras and sound recording equipment, and somehow that makes this feel all the more intimate and personable. But, as the familiar documentary marketing blurb goes, due to technical complications the footage was never released… until now. (Actually it seems it was ready a decade ago, but while she was alive Aretha Franklin blocked it from being released.)
Aretha is of course staggeringly good, but the film is wonderful in affording time to everything around her: the faces of the gospel choir are featured every bit as heavily, the well-practised patter of Rev Cleveland introducing the songs and helping out on the piano and vocals on a number of the more straightforwardly gospel numbers, and then there’s the audience, who are like a time capsule in and of themselves, getting to their feet, providing the call-and-response that Cleveland expects. On the second of the two nights, word has clearly got around, so Aretha’s father is there (hopping up to wipe down her sweating brow while she’s in full stride), Clara Ward (another gospel singer), even Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts can be spotted up the back in the audience.
Still, ultimately, this is Aretha’s film, and her performance is really spine-tingling, cementing it almost instantly as one of the all-time classic great concert movies.
Directors Sydney Pollack and Alan Elliott; Starring Aretha Franklin; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Wednesday 15 May 2019.
There are of course plenty of African-American women making films, but I think it speaks to some of the depth of talent that many of their recent films (like those of Ava DuVernay, Angela Robinson or Karyn Kusama, amongst others) have not really been about Black people specifically, or set within communities of colour, although of course they have shown a greater diversity of casting and crew hires than many mainstream (white) film directors. There are in any case many excellent examples to choose from, and a film from last year which impressed me as one of the better documentaries was Shakedown, documenting a marginalised sub-culture in a very sympathetic and engaging way.
I’ve seen some reviews comparing this film to everyone’s problematic fave Paris Is Burning, which makes a certain sense given that it is a film documenting an underground sub-culture involving primarily queer black people, and focuses on the personalities within it. Perhaps the scene in question here seems less like a community creating its own language (as with vogueing and ball culture), but equally I may be being naive: there are definite characters who thread through the narrative, even if there’s less of a sense of various tribal rivalries taking place.
In any case, the scene in question is a Los Angeles-based stripping community, the focus being on Shakedown Entertainment, a group putting on underground shows for largely queer black women (there are men there, but when we see white faces, they usually turn out to be cops). We get to see extended sequences in the clubs, as well as backstage in the dressing rooms, intercut with interviews with the women and some of those around them (the club’s manager, the security personnel, and a modern day interview with one of the dancers called Egypt). Much of the footage is from the early-2000s, shot on the technology of the time, which gives it a curious distance as well as a sort of lo-fi warmth, and any charges of exploitation (as occurred with Paris Is Burning) seem largely avoided because the documentarian was part of the scene being shot. (Indeed, thinking about it, I am reminded of other documentaries about LA-based underground subcultures: Ava DuVernay’s one about hiphop around the same time, This Is the Life; or Angela Boatwright’s Los Punks about more recent Latinx punk communities.)
It’s an engaging portrait of a time and place, and an excellent documentary speaking from the margins, and if anything more focused and fascinating for that.
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Leilah Weinraub; Length 72 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 12 July 2018.
The so-called “LA Rebellion” was a movement of sorts that arose amongst African-American filmmakers enrolled at UCLA’s School of Film, Theatre and Television in the 1970s, in the wake of the Civil Rights movement and US involvement in the Vietnam War. Their work was challenging the mainstream cinema, which certainly at that time — and you could make an argument for even now — remained a largely closed industry, in the process expanding the range of visual representations of the Black experience in the United States. The most well-known filmmakers to come from this movement remain the men: Charles Burnett and Haile Gerima, most notably. However, there were also a large number of women making films within this movement, some of whom would go on to work elsewhere in the film industry, but none of whom were ever given much of a chance beyond the film school.
Probably the best known of the women associated with the LA Rebellion has been Julie Dash, whose 1991 film Daughters of the Dust may be the single work most associated with the movement, but even she was not given the chance to direct many films (aside from some made-for-TV films). One of her earliest works is the short dance film Four Women (1975), which may be seven minutes of interpretative dance, but there’s beauty and grace, fabric and texture, hair and body, power and defiance in this dance, and in the Nina Simone song that soundtracks it. She followed it a couple of years later with Diary of an African Nun (1977, pictured above), which has a beautiful quality even in the imperfect decaying 8mm grain as it survives in a restored (as much as possible) print. Based on a story by Alice Walker, the film has a dreamy poetic quality that appears as if through a haze, with its central character finding it difficult to reconcile herself to her religious calling. Probably her finest film prior to Daughters is Illusions (1982, pictured at the top of this post), which may be little more than half an hour, but packs a lot into its World War II-era story of Mignon (Lonette McKee), a woman passing for white in a film studio’s production office. Mignon meets a darker-skinned woman employed to dub white women’s vocals in the pictures. The film nimbly enacts the way that race is deployed and erased, sometimes literally (here represented by an army censor), as well as the complex interactions between representation and reality. Plus, it’s beautifully shot and acted.
Another key figure in the movement is Alile Sharon Larkin, who has spent most of her career as an educator, with scandalously few directing credits. Her first student film was The Kitchen (1975), which touches on issues that are still very present and relevant in our own day — topics, indeed, that dominate a lot of the discourse I see online about the treament of women (particularly Black women and other women of colour). In this film, for example, there’s a sense that Black women are put in institutions and stigmatised with mental health issues for being different within mainstream white society. There’s a lot of play with hair in that respect, and the main character seems to be traumatised by memories of her natural hair being tortured into place with red hot irons, which leads to her donning a wig, directly linked to her being placed into care. These themes are undoubtedly even more visceral to those who live within these beauty constraints, and despite being under seven minutes in length, Larkin’s film captures this well. Like Dash, Larkin went on to make a longer work a few years later with A Different Image (1982, pictured above). There’s a certain earnestness, perhaps borne of the era in which it was made or the seriousness of its intentions, but this is an affecting 50-minute drama about the way that sexualised images in the environment affect socialisation between men and women. The film is never heavy-handed in the way it deploys this theme, with passing images contextualised by the men looking at them — at first, easy to laugh off, like a young boy laughing at the sight of our leading lady’s underwear, or her (male) work colleague’s interactions with another of his friends (who ostentatiously reads Playboy and wants to know if his friend has got some action yet). Progressively these become darker and more troubling, and the film continues to hint at an inability of men to see beyond women’s sexual attributes. It’s nicely acted and well shot by Charles Burnett.
Another woman within the LA Rebellion is Barbara McCullough, who went on to a career as a production manager (particularly within visual effects), a little older than some of her contemporaries, but who made a number of short films at the time. The one I’ve seen is Water Ritual #1: An Urban Rite of Purification (1979). There’s real beauty to this short experimental film, beautifully restored on 35mm, as a woman interacts with a sparse, impoverished environment. It’s all fairly oblique but ends in an act of purifying defiance.
Among the lesser-known figures was Anita W. Addison, who went on to direct TV shows in the 1990s as well as getting involved in production, but who died in 2004. I’m not clear if her short film Eva’s Man (1976) was made under the auspices of UCLA, but her name is linked with the LA Rebellion (at least on the Wikipedia page). Her film obliquely tells the story of a woman who kills her husband, with flashbacks to give a sense of why she might have done it, and sustains a nice claustrophobic atmosphere with a bit of free jazz on the soundtrack.
One final filmmaker I wanted to mention is Malvonna Bellenger, who later worked in local television and the recording industry, and who died from breast cancer in 2003. Her short film Rain (Nyesha) (1978) is ostensibly about a rainy LA day, though it’s not exactly about rain per se. Instead it’s about the possibility of a change coming, washing things away that existed before. And it’s about a young woman who seems from her voiceover to be disconsolate who finds herself becoming more certain as the rain comes down and Coltrane plays in the background. It finds its tone somewhere between elegiac and active, and it sticks to it.
African-American filmmakers can often be found working in the documentary form — which often presents fewer financial and political hurdles than feature filmmaking — and some have made entire bodies of work, exploring complex issues of race and urban identity, often within an academic framework. This is where Christopher Harris seems to come from, and listening to the director speak afterwards, it’s evident he has thought very deeply about his praxis and about representation on film. The quiet, observant approach is reminiscent of recent documentaries in a similar vein such as Hale County This Morning, This Evening by RaMell Ross and the work of Kevin Jerome Everson in that sense of a sort of decontextualised Black present-day life, of people seen in a very specific place, albeit always laden with unavoidable historical connotations and meaning. RaMell Ross in his film is a little more playful, using intertitles to sometimes wryly comment on what is seen. And if the structure initially seems haphazard, yet I have no doubt it is very carefully put together.
Kevin Jerome Everson has been working for fewer than two decades but has already amassed a prodigious body of work, including a huge number of short films. A number of his features and a few short films were presented online as part of a retrospective on Mubi in 2018, which introduced this filmmaker to my attention. Clearly he has his themes and his interests, but with so many films it’s difficult to give more than a hint at his distinctive style.