Criterion Sunday 334: Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)

In covering a miner’s strike in western Kentucky in the early-1970s, Barbara Kopple has shown us a side of America that rarely gets seen on-screen. Sure we’re all familiar with stereotypes of yokels from the Appalachians, but this film is about the work — coal mining, in this case — and the dangers of that work, the threats from the company owners, the meagre amount of pay and the terrible conditions of both the workplace and these people’s everyday lives. It never condescends to its subjects, and it’s firmly on the side of the strikers as they are aggressively confronted by strike-breakers, gun-toting ruffians who ride around in their pick-up trucks scarcely concealing the contempt and anger they have, and the force they’re willing to deploy to get their way. The police, too, are very much on the companies’ side, so we see the unequal force but also the vehemence of the strikers — and, notably, the women who are married to the miners, whose support is as strong if not stronger than their partners. From this tumult a number of characters start to become prominent, not least Lois Wood who keeps a gun in her bra and argues on behalf of confronting the violence they’re shown with their own violent resistance (she doesn’t quite get her way on that, mind).

Kopple contextualises the strikes with a sidebar on union politics (her original documentary subject before this one took over), notably the assassination of Jock Yablonski by the then-leader of the miners’ union in 1969, and the subsequent trial (shades of Harvey Weinstein as we see this previously vital man being wheeled into court as he performs being an invalid). Testimonies from those supporting the strike also recall the bloody 1930s when the so-called “Harlan County War” raged in a series of strikes that inspired a rich heritage of folk music, some of which we see performed (such as “Whose Side Are You On?” by Florence Reece, an old lady by the 1970s, but no less passionate about the union).

In short, it’s just great to see the urgent and heartfelt engagement with labour rights that subsequent decades of right-wing rule have since undermined so entirely. Of course, even by the end of this film it feels like so much is unresolved and will continue, as indeed I imagine it continues now, both here and on countless other fronts around the world, but the rights of the poorest in society should never be up for debate, and it seems sometimes as if it is constantly necessary to take a stand to protect them.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra is The Making of ‘Harlan County U.S.A.’, a short documentary made for this release, in which Kopple and her producer and cinematographers reflect on the filming, and the dangers they faced in covering this story. There are also some interviews from a miner and one of the women shown in the film (the daughter of the film’s most interesting character, Lois Wood), though the intervening years and the very poor living conditions of the miners suggest that many of the main participants in the original documentary have long since passed. It’s fascinating of course to see how the film came together, and to get a sense of what we didn’t see in the telling of this story.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Barbara Kopple; Cinematographers Kevin Keating, Hart Perry and Tom Hurwitz; Length 103 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 11 July 2020.

Global Cinema 8: Armenia – Armenian Rhapsody (2012)

For all its diminutive size, Armenia has a fairly active film industry, albeit on a smaller scale, perhaps one of the legacies of its Soviet past. Sergei Parajanov was Armenian (albeit born in Georgia) and it has had a number of at least locally well-known filmmakers since. One of my favourite films of recent decades was The Lighthouse (2006) by Maria Saakyan, who sadly died too young at the age of 38. The film I present below isn’t technically Armenian but is a fine introduction to the country, and available on YouTube


Armenian flagRepublic of Armenia (Հայաստան)
population 2,957,000 | capital Yerevan (Երևան) (1.1m) | largest cities Yerevan, Gyumri (122k), Vanadzor (86k), Vagharshapat (47k), Abovyan (43k) | area 29,743 km2 | religion Christianity (Armenian Apostolic Church) | official language Armenian (հայերէն Hayeren) | major ethnicity Armenians (98%) | currency Dram (֏) [AMD] | internet .am

A mostly mountainous, landlocked country, bordering Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iran. The original name Hayk’ (Հայք) traditionally derives from a legendary patriarch who settled in the area of Ararat, but the modern name Hayastan dates back to the Middle Ages, with the Persian suffix -stan. Evidence of human habitation dates back to the Bronze Age (c4000 BCE), including the earliest-dated wine-producing facility. The earliest Armenian geographic entity was established by the Orontid Dynasty (Achaemenid Empire) in the 6th century BCE, and became a kingdom within the Seleucid Empire, then Persian Empire. It went through various dynasties during the Middle Ages, until being conquered by the Mongols, and then divided by the Ottomans. Conflict during and after World War I resulted in the ‘Armenian Genocide’ by Ottoman Turks. Armenia was annexed with its neighbours by the Soviet Union in 1922, becoming its own SSR in 1936, eventually declaring independence on 21 September 1991. There was a conflict with neighbouring Azerbaijan, ending in 1994 but resulting in the contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. It now has a market economy, led by an elected President and Prime Minister.

Cinema in the country was established by the Soviets in 1923, though there are earlier films with an Armenian subject. The Armenfilm studio was established shortly after in 1924. In modern times, two or three feature films and a number of documentaries are produced each year, with the most notable director being Sergei Parajanov (who worked during the Soviet era, most famously on The Colour of Pomegranates). The most famous international director of Armenian ethnicity is Atom Egoyan (although he was born in Cairo and lives and works in Canada).


Rapsódia Armênia (Armenian Rhapsody aka Հայկական ռապսոդիա, 2012)

This film, which calls itself an “Armenian Rhapsody” isn’t actually Armenian it turns out, but rather a Brazilian film made by a trio of people with Armenian ancestry (or so I’m guessing from their surnames). However, given that I imagine most people don’t know very much about Armenia, it’s a fairly pleasant ride. Images of people flash up over the credits, and we get to see a few of their lives in a bit more detail: a likeable young couple getting married; an old man talking about the pitfalls of Communism in front of a victorious statue; another chap at home talking about the Armenian Genocide (which is officially recognised by Uruguay, he exclaims); and a chap with a glorious moustache he grows in recognition of tradition (for facial hair looms large). It’s not a revelatory work, but a pleasant stroll through various parts of Armenia, and a likeable introduction to the country.

Armenian Rhapsody film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Cassiana Der Haroutiounian, Cesar Gananian and Gary Gananian; Cinematographers Der Haroutiounian and Gary Gananian; Length 63 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Wednesday 1 July 2020.

Shut Up Sona (2019)

Another film which premiered in the Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects online streaming this past month is this one about an Indian singer confronting sexism and prejudice. It’s a forthright film about an outspoken woman, and it documents what appears to be an ongoing struggle.


India is, of course, a huge country, and with that huge population comes an equally diverse range of viewpoints when it comes to women in the media. Or perhaps, it’s not so diverse, since it seems as if patriarchy continues to hold sway. We see the titular character (Sona Mohapatra), a singer in Hindi, often adapting songs from other religious traditions (most notably, Sufism), confront those who would marginalise her. She’s not by any means poor, and is married to a successful producer of Bollywood music, but the film shows her forthrightness in attacking those who would deny women (like her) access to big stages and national prominence. We see her reading out messages from supporters on Instagram alongside e-mails from clerics attacking her, and quotes flash up on-screen from politicians leading the fight against immorality (which in the case of Sona appears to be: shows a bit too much cleavage in her videos). Her outspoken nature seem to get her naturally into trouble, and there are hints towards some #MeToo fights she’s had online which (presumably for legal reasons) aren’t given much time here, but she’s clearly not going to be quiet and that seems like a good thing for society.

Shut Up Sona film posterCREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Deepti Gupta; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Wednesday 17 June 2020.

A Suitable Girl (2017)

In looking at Indian cinema and society, a number of topics come up quite frequently, particularly that of arranged marriage, which can certainly seem problematic but is also an ingrained part of society and not always quite how Western audiences want to judge it. This documentary is fairly balanced in the way it approaches the subject, taking in three different subjects, at different stages in their path to marriage.


As a documentary about marriage, and thus about women’s lives, in India, this comes across as the cinematic equivalent of a long sigh. It’s not an angry film, it’s not even necessarily against the practice of arranged marriage, it just looks at the stories of three women and the way they feel about marriage and how they expect to continue their lives. All three are intelligent, motivated, and pretty, but each have different difficulties. One is marrying, which happens near the start of the film, meaning we then see how that plays out for her (cooking, domesticity, raising a child but not ‘allowed’ to work); the others are trying to make a path for themselves, and thus get married towards the end of the film. There’s a sense in which the music for those climactic marriage scenes is a little too overdetermined (it comes over like a feel-good commercial) when the rest of the film makes it clear that they have all made sacrifices and compromises. One of them isn’t willing to sacrifice her work and so she marries a man who is pretty blasé about the whole concept, basically admitting he’s just going through with it for his family, and though they seem happy together, it’s all very odd at times. Which means, as a film about the practice of Indian marriages, it’s interesting and fairly balanced.

A Suitable Girl film posterCREDITS
Directors Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra; Writers Khurana, Mundhra and Jennifer Tiexiera; Cinematographers Naiti Gámez, Shivani Khattar and André de Alencar Lyon; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Friday 2 March 2018.

Niña mamá (Mother-Child, 2019)

My blog’s theme last week was documentaries screened at the Sheffield Doc/Fest because that festival has gone online with a select programme this month. I’ve already watched a number of films through their portal, including this Argentinian film about young mothers. I’ll try and write a round-up of my favourites when the festival has closed (in mid-July), but in the meantime I’ll be wrapping up my Argentina theme week tomorrow with the Global Cinema entry for that country.


A solid observational documentary which in soft and muted black-and-white shows young women (some extremely young indeed) talking to hospital gynaecologists about their pregnancies, the various issues they’ve had with spouses, whether they’ve had the support of their parents, and touching obliquely at least on their lives, and the futures they imagine for themselves. The unseen women doing the interviews gently ask about whether those who are carrying their children to term have considered “interrupting” their pregnancies (some of them have had more than one child, though all of them are teenagers), while others are going through that and express a complicated range of responses. Neither the interviewers nor the film makes any judgements on any of the women, but we get a sense perhaps of the focus of sex education and lack of funding available to the hospital and its staff. It’s not always sad, because there’s such a range of experiences on show, but it’s reflective on the situations too many young women find themselves in, and the way their (lack of) options can define so many lives.

Mother-Child film posterCREDITS
Director Andrea Testa; Writers Francisco Márquez and Testa; Cinematographer Gustavo Schiaffino; Length 66 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Thursday 11 June 2020.

Orione (2017)

Moving to a rather more obscure Argentine film, a first feature by a young director, which is a documentary but a rather experimental one in form, dealing with the idea of a life and interrogating some of the ways that this person’s life is framed by different voices and authorities.


A strange open-ended documentary about a young man who was shot by the police in a poor suburb of Buenos Aires, this marshals an array of footage — interviews with the mother, police dashboard cameras, dead bodies in a morgue, TV, home video — to present the sense of a place and the idea of a life. The dead young man was a criminal, but he was also his mother’s son, the father to his own child, and a person who had dreams and an upbringing, and part of what the documentary does is just to expand the range of the usual crime procedural documentary to be more about the victim’s entire life, about his surroundings and how he came to be. The interview with the mother is in voiceover as she makes an elaborate birthday cake, again framing the sound of witnesses with the ongoing events of lived experience, and that’s what I take from this film.

Orione film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Toia Bonino; Length 65 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 25 November 2018.

Global Cinema 6: Antigua and Barbuda – Dadli (2018)

A lack of film output, along with rather patchy online availability, means my film choice for the tiny island nation of Antigua and Barbuda is a short film, albeit one with a great facility for the image. It’s hardly a wealthy nation, though, especially after recent hurricanes, but it has natural beauty, and that much has attracted a healthy tourist industry.


Antiguan flagAntigua and Barbuda
population 96,000 | capital St John’s (23k) | largest cities St John’s, All Saints (3.4k), Liberta (2.2k), Potter’s Village (2.1k), Bolans (1.8k) | area 440 km2 | religion Christianity (77%) | official language English | major ethnicity Black African (91%) | currency East Caribbean dollar ($) [XCD] | internet .ag

An island nation in the middle of the Leeward Islands, made up of the two major islands in the country’s name along with a number of smaller ones, though the vast majority of the population is on Antigua (especially since a 2017 hurricane which destroyed much of Barbuda’s buildings). The island was settled around 3000 BCE by the Ciboney Amerindians, succeeded by the Saladoid people from the Orinoco, then the Caribs. The English came in the mid-17th century, and slaves were imported to work the tobacco and sugar plantations. It gained partial independence from the UK in 1967, followed by full independence on 1 November 1981. It retains the British monarch as head of state, with its own Prime Minister as head of government.

The first feature film made by the island nation was in 2001, so it’s fair to say it hasn’t had a huge history of film production.


Dadli (2018)

I think sometimes short films can be perfect — in the sense of taking an idea and completing it, doing everything that can be done — but others are like fragments of a longer experience, and this feels like the latter. It’s gorgeously evocative (directed and photographed by the cinematographer who did Skate Kitchen amongst others), starting and ending with ravishing sunsets over his native island nation, and features a number of voices, whether the young kid seen wrangling a donkey, or an older man reflecting on his life. However, these feel like miniatures from what should be a full-length piece. Still, even as it is, it’s a fleeting elegy for a lost way of life (and I gather from the director’s notes that this area, almost a shanty town, was bulldozed), with a brief glimpse of a cruise ship looming ominously, portentously.

CREDITS
Directors Shabier Kirchner and Elise Tyler; Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner; Length 14 minutes.
Seen at home (Vimeo streaming), London, Saturday 9 May 2020.

Romantic Comedy (2019)

At the lighter end of any festival’s line-up (not least Sheffield Doc/Fest’s) are the films about films. 2018 saw Shirkers, though that investigation of a lost bit of cinema history blended personal essay with criticism and went rather dark in the process. A different approach is taken by this film premiered last year, that provides a bit of cinematic film criticism, entirely made out of clips from the genre suggested by the film’s title.


This personal essay film/reflection on the titular genre borrows a lot of its approach from Beyond Clueless (2014, directed by Charlie Shackleton né Lyne), from the clip-based structure, to the poster design right down to the musical collaborators (plus Mr Shackleton shows up as one of the commentators, which is one way that it differs from that film at least, which relied instead on a single narrator). It may not offer any insights that aren’t obvious enough to anyone who watches the films (that they glorify a lot of extremely creepy male behaviour, and pander to the patriarchy) but of course it’s nice to hear it all expressed in one place. It even, thankfully, moves into what is compelling about romcoms, why they continue to be made and gain a lot of success, though I did appreciate the way it used the genre’s format to pull in some other titles that aren’t usually considered as romcoms. Some of the use of the commentators’ voices was to speak to experiences outside that of our director/writer Elizabeth Sankey, namely those of women of colour and gay men, though those sequences were touched on only very briefly towards the end. What becomes clear is that the bulk of the form has long been dedicated to heteronormative, white, able-bodied, cisgender, middle-class desire, so while counterexamples exist (for at least some of those categories), the strength of the genre in future will rely on a far more equal acknowledgement of all kinds of love.

Romantic Comedy film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Elizabeth Sankey; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Saturday 16 May 2020.

Hail Satan? (2019)

I’ve been featuring films shown at Sheffield Doc/Fest on my blog this week, as the festival’s online 2020 edition is currently live. The last edition premiered a number of high-profile documentaries for UK audiences, including the Doc/Audience Award winner For Sama and the Tim Hetherington Award winner One Child Nation, amongst others. A film which gained a cinematic release fairly swiftly after the festival and which takes a different tonal approach to serious societal issues is this one, ostensibly about Satanic practice in the United States (or at least, one branch of it), but actually about civil liberties, a wider discussion that’s always relevant.


This is an amusing documentary that doesn’t take itself too seriously, largely because it’s about a movement that likewise isn’t very serious — at least, not about Satanism itself (ironically enough). Really it’s about raising social consciousness for issues of real freedom (of abortion rights, against transphobia, and of course the rights to religious freedom that require the separation of church and state), and so mostly frequently we see the Satanists protesting outside government buildings trying to protect and enshrine rights that go far beyond Satanism per se. While the film likely doesn’t reflect the variety of Satanic religious practice (I’m sure at least some of it is undertaken earnestly), it’s a rare work that deals with the happier, more productive end of trolling for a change.

Hail Satan? film posterCREDITS
Director Penny Lane; Cinematographer Naiti Gámez; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Sunday 25 August 2019.

Step (2017)

I suppose this kind of milieu, the inner-city school, isn’t particularly uncommon, nor even focusing on athletic achievements in that venue (The Fits, although a fiction drama, isn’t so removed from this). And indeed there’s a whole (and great, in my opinion) franchise of films dedicated to this dance style, Step Up. Still, it’s nice to see the dance form tied to a story that’s grounded in a sociopolitical context, and though it’s always worth being attentive to the means of production (the film crew appear to be largely white), I think the resulting film avoids exploitation and is empathetic towards its subjects.


See, I get the reviews calling this film uplifting or inspirational, because that vibe definitely exists here, at least in part. But it’s set in a Black girls’ school in Baltimore, and the context — as we’ve seen only too often, and recently as well — is tough for them. That much the documentary makes clear at the outset. Still, this is about three young women who each approach their goal of getting into college via different means, but all of whom are into step dance. Those sequences could be better filmed (choppy editing and close-ups are all too common in dance films and really don’t help viewers appreciate it), but the pathos is all there, and by the end I think the film really allows for some empathy with its stars. Well, I shed a few tears.

Step film posterCREDITS
Director Amanda Lipitz; Cinematographer Casey Regan; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Sunday 13 August 2017.