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.

NZIFF 2021: Te llevo conmigo (I Carry You with Me, 2020)

I’ve reviewed documentaries of every type seen so far during Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, but this one breaks the mould a little bit by incorporating fictional restaged elements. It’s all very cannily done by a seasoned documentarian, but it’s a beautiful film that deserves a wider audience.


This film starts out with the feel of a documentary about a chef in NYC but then slips between various time periods in the childhood and early-20s of the same man growing up in small town Mexico. The struggles he has with same-sex attraction and holding down a relationship under the judgemental eyes of his family and those in the community around him have a certain familiarity, but are handled very beautifully here. Part of that is from the way the film surprisingly blends fictional narrative and documentary, becoming evident later in the film, and which deepens the richness of the 80s and 90s-set sections. It all makes sense as a move on the part of a long-time documentary filmmaker, and it certainly makes me intrigued to see more of what she produces, as this film has a very polished, gracious and beautifully shot sense of atmospherics with a slight touch of Malick at times.

Te llevo conmigo (I Carry You with Me, 2020)CREDITS
Director Heidi Ewing; Writers Ewing and Alan Page Arriaga; Cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramírez; Starring Armando Espitia, Christian Vázquez; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Petone, Monday 8 November 2021.

Global Cinema 30: Cameroon – Sisters in Law (2005)

It’s a fair while since I last did a ‘Global Cinema’ feature. For some reason I got a bit stuck on Cameroon and have ended up recycling an older review that I think I put up at some point, but not as its own post. Anyway, it’s a worthwhile film (like anything by Kim Longinotto) and while an indigenous production may have been more interesting, it’s not exactly a country with a widely distributed cinematic output.


Cameroonian flagRepublic of Cameroon (aka République du Cameroun)
population 26,546,000 | capital Yaoundé (1.8m) | largest cities Douala (1.9m), Yaoundé, Bafoussam (800k), Bamenda (270k), Garoua (236k) | area 475,442 km2 | religion Christianity (71%), Islam (24%) | official language English, French (français) | major ethnicity Cameroon Highlanders (31%), Equatorial Bantu (19%), Kirdi (11%), Fulani (10%) | currency Central African CFA franc (FCFA) [XAF] | internet .cm

A West-Central African country, bordered by Nigeria, Chad, the Central African Republic (inland) and Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and the Republic on the Congo, it opens onto the Gulf of Guinea at the Bight of Biafra (or Bonny), though most of the country sits inland. The area was first settled in the Neolithic era and its longest continuous inhabitants are the Baka (pygmies). Indigenous inhabitants of the Lake Chad region founded the Sao culture around 500 CE, leading to the Kanem then Bornu Empire. The earliest Europeans to arrive were the Portuguese in 1472, who noticed shrimps in the Wouri River and called it Rio dos Camarões, leading to the English name Cameroon. The Germans were the earliest to stake a claim in 1884, but after World War I, it was taken over by the League of Nations and split between French and much smaller British territories (the latter administered from Nigeria). France outlawed the independence party UPC in 1955, leading to a guerrilla war that eventuated in independence under Ahmadou Ahidjo in 1960, while the Southern Cameroons (under British rule) also voted for independence and joined with the formerly French state on 1 October 1961. Ahidjo stepped down in 1982 and passed power to Paul Biya who remains President (the longest-ruling non-royal world leader). A territorial dispute with Nigeria over the oil-rich Bakassi peninsula was resolved in Cameroon’s favour in 2006. Separatists in the formerly British territories continue to agitate for independence as Ambazonia.

There is both French and English-language filmmaking in the country (the latter sometimes referred to as Collywood, apparently). Filmmaking didn’t really begin until independence, largely French-taught with filmmakers like Jean-Pierre Dikongué Pipa (who directed Muna Moto in 1975) and a handful of others throughout the 70s and 80s. A few cinemas were even sustained for a time, but now much exhibition tends to happen at mobile cinemas. A film festival began in 2016, though there’s still not a huge international recognition of Cameroon’s filmmaking, hence the film I’ve focused on is a collaboration with a UK documentarian.


Sisters in Law (2005)

Kim Longinotto tells another fascinating story of women in marginalised spaces fighting for rights, this time in Cameroon. There’s clearly a wider picture of a society based on ‘traditional’ values trying to change, or rather being pushed to do so by the strong women of this story (whether those bringing charges of assault, rape and the like, or those defending them or judging their cases). However the film really focuses in on these key four stories and follows them through, and it is in its way, after all the detailed accounts of abuses heard earlier, a heartening one.

Sisters in Law film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Florence Ayisi and Kim Longinotto; Cinematographer Longinotto; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 18 May 2016.

NZIFF 2021: Sisters with Transistors (2020)

I’ve already covered some of the range of documentaries at New Zealand International Film Festival. In some respects it’s surprising that the music ones have been the less formally innovative, given that both films (this and Poly Styrene) deal with boldly experimental artists working outside the mainstream. However, while both are fairly straightforward, they at least deal with very interesting subjects. I don’t think they both work entirely, but they serve as useful primers.


This film definitely deals with a topic I have a lot of interest in: I love the work of Éliane Radigue, which shimmers with barely perceptible fluctuating textures and tonalities like a pulsing sonic organism, and own releases by Pauline Oliveros, Laurie Spiegel and others covered here. So in that respect, I was very happy to see and learn more about these women working in a strange, dusty little corner of the music world which would come in time to have more prominence. But it’s undeniably also the case that this film is very much fixated on a certain type of electronic sound artist, which unfortunately means they all seem to have a similar kind of well-educated background, a similar intensity of expression, although the sounds they conjure range along a gamut. The addition of Wendy Carlos almost feels like an after-the-fact gesture (she’s not listed as one of the main profiled women in the end credits), and her music is dismissed somewhat as populist and light — which may well be her place within this particularly austere community, but the footage we see certainly shows she had plenty of ideas and ability to conjure incredible sounds from circuitry. But on the whole, this is a solid primer on the work of pioneering sound artists, from the boffins of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (Oram and Derbyshire) to the experimenters in France and America and is worth watching for those interested in sound.

Sisters with Transistors (2020)

CREDITS
Director/Writer Lisa Rovner; Cinematographer Bill Kirstein; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Wednesday 10 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021)

I’ve already reviewed a number of documentaries screening at Whānau Mārama: New Zealand International Film Festival, not because documentaries are suddenly big again but because film festivals are the perfect place to catch films which don’t conform to the usual standards for what gets released. This one is a bit out of the ordinary, and like Mariner of the Mountains, very much defies categorisation, landing somewhere between poetic essay and political drama enfolding students and the nation as a whole under Narendra Modi. It’s not a film I expected to like, not beforehand nor even while watching it for much of its running time, but it wove a sort of magical grip on me by the end.


One thing I love about going to film festivals is seeing a far greater range of documentary expression than gets released to cinemas (where the documentaries tend to be studiously fact-based and talking-head in format). Like many modern works, though, this carefully balances itself between what’s familiar about the format, and something at a higher poetic register. Grainy 16mm footage of students dancing opens and closes the film, and in between this darkened almost clandestine world of university study and protest becomes evident, while on the soundtrack a soft voice narrates (presumably fictional) letters being written from a single-lettered unknown person, providing a glimpse into a turbulent time in Indian history when universities, academic freedoms, intellectual life and freedom in general is under threat from fascist governmental forces. There’s something at once calming and reverential but also incendiary about what the director is doing here. If it at first seems disconcerting, by the end it has conjured up a distinct and impressive mood that makes the usual run of fact-based filmmaking look dull by comparison.

A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021)

CREDITS
Director Payal Kapadia; Writers Kapadia and Himanshu Prajabati; Cinematographer Ranabir Das; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at City Gallery, Wellington, Tuesday 9 November 2021.