Criterion Sunday 156: Hearts and Minds (1974)

Undoubtedly this is a powerful piece of filmmaking about a war (the Vietnam War), though its lessons can be applied to many subsequent conflicts. To see former generals note that the strategy of continuing a war that killed so many people barely had any effect on the resolve of the native people to keep fighting against the foreign incursion is surely something that should have been remembered after 2001 as well, but the nature of modern warfare — the way it is played out in the media, the access they are given — has fundamentally changed. There are sequences here that are scarcely believable, like the soldiers filmed joking with each other while with respective women at a brothel. But there are other sequences — interviews with veterans, generals and politicians alike — that shed light on the attitudes that went into the war: a desperate desire to hold onto resources, and to keep face with allies even as the philosophy that propelled them to intervene (the Domino Theory about the spread of Communism) was largely debunked. The filmmaker here uses all the now familiar techniques of cannily editing footage to prove the institutional lies of the American forces, as well as occasional editorial asides that almost joke with the audience (a father who’s lost a son hymning the leadership of Nixon while a subtitle pops up at just this point to say “filmed in early 1973”). It remains a relevant film and an excellent one, for all the bias one might accuse it of, not least for the interview with the bomber pilot that runs through and concludes the film, which is beautifully poignant and powerful.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Peter Davis | Cinematographer Richard Pearce | Length 112 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 May 2017

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Criterion Sunday 155: Tokyo orinpikku (Tokyo Olympiad, 1965)

As far as documentaries about sports go, for all the experience I have of them (which, for the avoidance of doubt, is very little, though I have seen Riefenstahl’s one about Berlin 1936), this documentary on the 1964 Summer Olympics is very good. It has all the techniques we’ve become used to in modern sports coverage, but framed and edited to emphasise the human form, the endurance, the technique, rather than simply who won. There are plenty of beautiful shots, poetic inserts, crowd details and little bits other films wouldn’t bother with — like athletes hammering in their starting blocks, or the sand being levelled in a waterlogged long jump pit, stuff like that. It’s all beautifully done and even three hours passes quickly.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Kon Ichikawa | Writers Natto Wada, Yoshio Shirasaka, Shintaro Tanikawa and Kon Ichikawa | Cinematographers Shigeo Hayashida and Kazuo Miyagawa | Length 169 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 1 May 2017

Criterion Sunday 153: Général Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait (General Idi Amin Dada, 1974)

An odd documentary, with a double focus. On the one hand this is the Ugandan dictator’s film, as he gives directions to the camera and stages scenes, rambles on about his political philosophy and shows all the strings to his bow — political speechmaker, military commander (in a particularly underwhelming run-through of a prospective attack on Israel), tour guide to the African wildlife, and even accordion player. The other side of the film is Barbet Schroeder’s inserts, a pre-credits sequence of mass killings, a mention during a particular grumpy meeting that Amin holds with the foreign ministry that the minister was found dead a few weeks later, questions about his views on Hitler after producing a letter sent to the IOC following Munich. It’s chilling in its way, this genial fool and the damage and death he caused, but always relevant.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Barbet Schroeder | Cinematographer Néstor Almendros | Length 90 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 16 April 2017

Bayang Ina Mo (Motherland, 2017)

A film about an enormous maternity hospital in Manila, it doesn’t take long to realise how crowded things are when you see expectant mothers rolled on to the edges of beds already occupied, even playing with their babies two to a bed as well. Indeed, by the end we see the hospital celebrating the birth of the 100 millionth Filipino, and you get a sense that a fair few of them have come through here. The lack of funds means those with weak babies — which is the area of the hospital this film largely focuses on — don’t get incubators but are instead encouraged to wear tube tops to hold their babies close to them as part of the ‘kangaroo medical care’ programme. The women are admonished for not using them 24/7, while a nurse on a microphone at the end of the ward dispenses life advice like a Greek chorus. From out of this chaos the film starts to introduce individual stories and eventually we get to know the situations of a few of the (very poor, very Catholic) women, some of whom are very young, others of whom have five or more kids already. We see them turn down free contraception for frustratingly vague (but obviously religious) reasons, and we see the struggle to come up with even the very small fees being charged, though some of them at least have supportive husbands who are allowed to visit briefly and get to wear the tube tops as well. Like the best documentaries it’s a fascinating look into a world most of us won’t see and it’s a compassionate one too.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Ramona S. Diaz | Cinematographers Clarissa delos Reyes and Nadia Hallgren | Length 94 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 7 August 2017

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