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

Criterion Sunday 122: Salesman (1968)

The idea of going door-to-door selling Bibles is hardly one that you imagine can be particularly lucrative, and yet there are plenty of people we see doing just this in the seminal late-60s documentary Salesman (another film from the Maysles brothers and Charlotte Zwerin, predating by a couple of years their Gimme Shelter). But the film is not just about a bunch of guys in grey suits selling (or failing to sell) Bibles: it’s about a way of life under capitalism, and the toll it takes on those who follow it. Amongst the four or five salesmen we see (each of whom have animal nicknames), Paul “The Badger” Brennan is the one who stands out — hollow-eyed, with a punchy, almost angry, insistence on trying to win over people, which he is finding increasingly difficult (you can imagine him being played in a film by Bryan Cranston). He holds dear (whether for personal or business reasons) his Irish Catholic background and frequently lapses into an almost-mocking Irish accent when talking about his customers, but he also fails to see how poor so many of them are, how little need they have for a deluxe new $50 Bible for their home, and how stretched they’d be to afford it. Because that struggle to keep going — whether Paul in his selling, or the families he’s selling to — is another of the film’s themes. You get the sense that it will never work out, and the black-and-white photography and the men’s identical grey suits and salaryman demeanour make it seem (and must have surely seemed even on release) as a document out of time, bound never to fit in, like the product they’re hawking.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin | Cinematographer Albert Maysles | Length 91 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 2 October 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, early-2000s)

This Is the Life (2008)

Ava DuVernay’s first feature-length film was this documentary (just up on Netflix) which focuses on a scene she was not only close to, but part of — the rap community based around the weekly hip-hop open mic nights at LA’s Good Life Cafe from 1989-1995 (we even get to see a short clip of her MCing, and she features in a lot of the talking heads interviews as part of her duo Figures of Speech). Formally, it’s very straightforward, blunt even: those interviews interspersed with video footage recorded at the time (and a few more recent clips to illustrate points being made, or subsequent careers). Sometimes someone will be remembering something (a notable MC’s flow, perhaps, or their distinctive stage presence) and then we’ll get the exact footage they are referring to — clearly, there exists plenty of documentation of the Good Life’s open mic nights, always good for this kind of project. If it seems raw and earnest, that’s hardly a failing, but comes from the love of filmmaker for subject. It’s good, too, to witness a scene explicitly founded in resisting what by that point were considered the boring tropes of gangster rap (so prevalent at the time, and this was around when Boyz N the Hood was filmically defining South Central Los Angeles). Much of the rap education I got from my ex in the early-00s was alternative hip-hop acts like Antipop Consortium and Blackalicious, and seeing this documentary makes it clear that other communities in the US were crafting lyrical, thoughtful reflections on the genre (leading to careers for rappers like Aceyalone and acts like Jurassic 5, the latter probably the most famous of the outfits which came from the Good Life scene). A film both inspiring and sweet.


FILM REVIEW
Director Ava DuVernay | Cinematographer Isaac Klotz | Length 97 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Wednesday 11 January 2017

Paris Is Burning (1990)

It’s an overwhelming experience this film, a very early touchstone for a transgender community still rarely represented on-screen (especially in 1990), and seeing it followed by a panel discussion of people of colour involved in the ball community added extra layers and made it clear there’s plenty to criticise — mostly in terms of how the scene is presented, how the personalities are little more than icons, and whether this is a form of gentrification of a subculture. Primarily, it made clear to me that this is not a fleeting fad that has since disappeared, but is part of almost a century of continuous development, just that mostly it’s been out of sight of those such as myself (and presumably the director of this film).

As for the film, whatever criticism one may make about some of the ways it frames its talent, the sheer energy and presence of these performers is real and amazing. They ARE fabulous, they take control of their space, of the viewer, they step beyond the frame of the filmmaker and outside the bounds of any conventional criticism, along the way creating a vocabulary which has flourished ever since. Almost all of the key players of the film are dead now, and only 25-30 years has passed. Many of them reflect cogently and sometimes with ruefulness in the film about the conditions of society which hold them back, but then their performance and their lives make such an impression as to make it clear how important it is to be part of a community of people in safe and nurturing spaces. I can only hope such spaces continue to be available to those who need them.


RETROSPECTIVE SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: BFI Blackstar
Director Jennie Livingston | Cinematographer Paul Gibson | Length 78 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Tuesday 29 November 2016

Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003)

Surely Charles Burnett is the most adaptable of modern directors, able to work successfully at all levels of production (indie and mainstream, feature-length, short film or, as here, hour-long History Channel-type TV documentary). This is a film about Nat Turner and his 1831 slave rebellion, but it’s equally about the impossibility of knowing or representing this event, filtered as it is through so many other voices, not to mention experiences of the troubling history of race relations in the United States. Burnett’s documentary presents not just interviews with historians and commentators, but also recreations, recreations of interpretations, and even behind-the-scenes of those recreations. It’s really excellent, powerful stuff, and surely the only film you need about not just Nat Turner, but about the pitfalls of historiography on screen.


FILM REVIEW
Director Charles Burnett | Writers Charles Burnett, Frank Christopher and Kenneth S. Greenberg | Cinematographer John Demps | Length 57 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Thursday 8 December 2016

I Don’t Belong Anywhere: Le Cinéma de Chantal Akerman (I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman, 2015)

This is a documentary about a great filmmaker, one who sadly died shortly after its completion, presenting interviews with her contextualising her films and work, as well as clips of the films, and fragments of her working on her latest (and as it turns out, last) film, the brilliant No Home Movie. It doesn’t slavishly copy Akerman’s own style but it imparts a sense of it (heightened obviously by the clips), staying grounded in Akerman’s own words and experiences. Luckily, she’s a voluble speaker and a fascinating screen presence. It may not itself dig deep into Akerman’s oeuvre but it allows plenty of jumping-off points for further discussion and research, and that itself has some value.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director Marianne Lambert | Writers Luc Jabon and Marianne Lambert | Cinematographer Rémon Fromont | Length 67 minutes || Seen at JW3, London, Wednesday 14 December 2016

Tiexi Qu (Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks, 2003)

One of the things that cinema can do most powerfully (and it’s by no means the only thing, or something that all films can or should be doing) is to give a sense of what it’s like to be in a particular place at a time in history. It seems to me, as well, that this is a really valuable gift, as few enough of us get a real empathetic sense of what other people’s lives are like, and even travelling only gives us a partial understanding (as the places we go are most likely the places that are prepared and open to us as tourists). Well, Wang Bing’s 9-hour long documentary West of the Tracks is a glorious example of the empathetic power of cinema at its finest: a document of industrial decay in the north-east of China, and how it affects a community (or rather, perhaps, a series of interlocked and interdependent communities).

It’s split into three broad parts (“Rust”, “Remnants” and “Rails”) of roughly four, three and two hours respectively, the first and longest dealing with three large factories (dedicated to smelting, zinc sheets, and steel cables). Wang filmed over the course of 1999-2001, and even in the early sequences we get a sense of how these factories are on their last legs, far from the shiny glass and steel modernism we might be used to, but crumbling relics of a past era. Workers are seen not just on the factory floor, but bickering in the changing rooms and wandering around naked in and out of showers, playing mahjong and receiving rare visits from bosses. As the time goes by, the work becomes more haphazard, the permanent staff replaced by temps, all kinds of dangerous practices going on, and having often not been paid for months, there’s a flagrant disregard not just for safety but for property — so tenuous is the business that employess openly discuss what they’re going to try and make off with before inevitable layoffs.

The second part goes to a nearby residential community, as it too slowly disappears, with evictions quickly leading to rows of roofless properties, among the rubble of which the last few hardy souls make do without electricity, boiling up food on wood-burning stoves. It would tempting to say the only colour in their dwellings comes from the bowls of food which are served, but even this is sometimes just bland porridge and steamed buns. It’s evidently not an easy life, but somehow the people there just keep on going, while wondering with increasing resentment why the alternative accommodation they’ve been offered is too small for their families, and too expensive for them to afford. (It’s never really made clear why these settlements — where the factory workers and their families lived, paying no rent — are being demolished, but it’s obviously linked to the closure of the factories.) The focus here is on the teenage children of the families, growing up without a sense of where to work or what to do. They move around the streets and the makeshift street markets chatting and jostling with one another like any kids anywhere in the world, but having watched the four preceding hours, it’s clear that this is a changing world. The film’s third part is set amongst a small group of rail workers (specifically old Mr Du and his son), running up and down the single-track line serving all these factories, and using the job to scavenge materials, an occupation clearly destined for oblivion.

Obviously the idea of sitting down to a nine-hour film is a daunting one, but it also creates its own sense of time passing that’s at odds with a lot of the instant-reaction fast-cut media with which we are most often faced. It allows the space for reflection and, most interestingly, allows a sense of possibility that bite-sized news items can sometimes occlude: in watching these massive societal changes to this area, there is without question struggle and bleakness, but it’s also a powerful testimony to what might be called a certain indomitability of human endeavour (okay, that seems a little too portentous a phrase). Everyone we see is dealing with their lives and forever trying to move forward, however many obstacles are placed in their way. It’s just that some obstacles seem insurmountable.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Cinematographer Wang Bing | Length 551 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 23 November 2016

Faaji Agba (2015)

In a manner not dissimilar to Buena Vista Social Club, this documentary tracks the efforts of Kunle, the owner of a Lagos, Nigeria-based record shop and label (Jazzhole Records), to bring together a disparate group of largely-forgotten or underappreciated older musicians from his country’s history, so that they can record their music and pass it on to a new generation largely unfamiliar with this musical tradition. His friend Remi Vaughan-Williams was on hand with a camera, and in due time (six years after she started filming in 2009) brought the footage together into this 90-minute film. Sadly, by this point many of the musicians have passed, but their legacy is vividly rendered here. There’s a lot of great music, in a variety of traditional styles (not just Afrobeat and Highlife, but others far less familiar to Western audiences), and some excellent footage of these musicians, as they come together, rehearse, bicker, fall out, reconcile and eventually put on a show in New York City. And although getting the music out to the Western world was never precisely the point of the project or the film, but it’s still obviously a big deal for the group and is given a fair chunk of the running time. The film itself is largely a one-woman operation, so there’s not a great deal of polish to the filmmaking itself — the camera jerks around shakily at times, while the editing tries to cram a huge amount of material in and so everything seems hectic and a bit rushed — but given the means available to Vaughan-Williams and her producer Kunle (i.e. next to none), it’s all fascinating and enjoyable stuff which conveys a great sense of change both in Nigerian music and in Lagos itself.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Black Star: Beyond Nollywood
Director/Cinematographer Remi Vaughan-Williams | Length 90 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Sunday 20 November 2016

Generation Revolution (2016)

Seeing this kind of politically-committed documentary — about youthful revolutionary protestors (specifically people of colour in London) fighting against multiple intersections of oppression, whether racist, capitalist, sexist, imperialist — in a plush central London cinema feels strange. Indeed, this probably isn’t the kind of venue where it will get most traction; it’s surely more a means towards getting the message into at least the film columns of broadsheet newspapers. That said, although it’s about activists and conveys the potency of a very real and urgent struggle (ever more so since it was made, since events of even just the past week), it’s not simply a work of activist agitprop.

The film’s participants are careful and reflective about their voices and the ways they are trying to engage and confront a system of interrelated oppressions. They don’t always agree about either methods or ideology, but all of them are doing so much more than most of us, in our complacency (certainly those of us watching in posh central London cinemas, let’s be fair), and that’s important to see, just as it’s important to know and acknowledge this work is happening. My favourite participant is Tej, a sweet guy taking part in feminist consciousness raising, not to mention idealistically helping out homeless people and worrying over the details (whether his care packages are missing roll-on deodorant for example). There’s also the woman who calls out her fellow revolutionaries for being insufficiently inclusive, and the young woman near the end who bashfully admits she doesn’t know how to talk to people even as she strikes up an easy friendship with one unfortunate homeless woman outside Euston station.

Generation Revolution is filled with such portraits. It shows a side not just of political activism, but specifically of activism and community engagement amongst black and minority ethnicities in this country, that is rarely represented in the media, and gives me at least a strength of hope in future generations against what feels like a relentlessly cynical and ironic tone to much of the mainstream coverage of politics. It’s worth seeking out, as finding more ways to engage with political change is sadly becoming increasingly urgent in many parts of the western world.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Directors Cassie Quarless and Usayd Younis | Length 74 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Saturday 12 November 2016

A Revolution in Four Seasons (2016)

There have been a number of recent films (documentaries and fiction films) about the Arab Spring and what has resulted from that, and it’s fair to say from what I’ve seen, there’s not yet any kind of triumphant narrative to be told about it. Charting the turbulent political developments in Tunisia (where the ‘Arab Spring’ began), this film focuses on two women from opposing sides of a political divide that’s roughly dissected by Islamist belief. However, the film is careful to avoid demonising either: both Emna (the ‘blogger’) and Jawhara (the politician) are intelligent, reflective women working within a legacy of feminist thought and activity. Both are equally committed to a future for their nation, even if one passionately believes in secularism where the other wants to retain a link to a rich Islamic cultural and religious heritage. In taking these two as subjects, the film also charts a relationship between women, work and family in modern Tunisia that’s quite fascinating in its own right, and even early assumptions a viewer might make about Jawhara and Emna’s husbands turn out, over the course of the years during which the film was made, to be misguided in differing directions. It’s hard to know where the future of the region lies, but one hopes in listening to these passionate women (and even their husbands) that there may yet be a positive way forward.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Jessie Deeter | Cinematographers Bassem Aounallah and Hatem Nechi | Length 87 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 7 November 2016