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.

NZIFF 2021: O Marinheiro das Montanhas (aka Algérien par accident) (Mariner of the Mountains, 2021)

It just wouldn’t be a film festival unless there were something uncategorisable, and that’s sort of where this poetic documentary sits, a blend of personal narrative and a voiceover narration that suggests a story that goes a little beyond the real. But it deals with the director’s family history, limning different cultures (Algeria and Brazil), and which of us really knows where our family’s history ends and fiction begins, anyway? I have somehow contrived never to have seen any of the director’s films, not least his breakthrough (2019’s The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão) — possibly due to moving countries and, you know, the pandemic — but I really want to now.


The first film I’ve seen by this director, but it’s a haunting, poetic documentary in a sort of Chris Marker mould, though maybe its just the framing narration that puts me in mind of him, given that it seems to take place at a different narrative level, more like a fictional story in which is set the documentary footage of Karim journeying back from Brazil (where he was born and grew up) to his father’s village in Algeria. It shoots Algeria with great sensitivity and beauty, and really imparts a sense of life there, along with his own emotions (for he is also narrating) about his past, his father, his heritage. Locals are shot with an inquiring eye, and Karim isn’t afraid to let us hear him interacting with his subjects, because he is part of the story even if largely unseen. There’s something complex here, with many layers working beautifully together to evoke a place but also a personal journey.

O Marinheiro das Montanhas (2021) poster

CREDITS
Director Karim Aïnouz; Writers Aïnouz and Murilo Hauser; Cinematographer Juan Sarmiento G; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Sunday 7 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 482: 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle (2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, 1967)

I think the way you feel about this film probably has a lot to do with how you feel about Godard overall. His can be a very frustrating body of work to follow, and even at his most accessible, back in the 1960s, by the end of the decade he was starting to get abstruse and political in ways that weren’t always friendly to audiences watching. However, for my money this is the film where he balances those two opposing tensions best, being both pretentious in the way his whispered narration hints at various topics around capitalism, alienation of labour and the modern city, while also presenting an identifiable character whose life we can be pulled along by. It’s pretty abstract at times, but there’s beauty as well as b0llocks in that abstractness and if it seems like an impressionistic grab bag of ideas, it’s still for me pretty compelling, a film that doesn’t divulge all its mystery but holds back something for repeat viewings.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard (based on an article by Catherine Vimenet); Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Marina Vlady; Length 87 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 27 November 2021 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, March 1999).

Criterion Sunday 387: La Jetée (aka The Pier, 1962) and Sans soleil (aka Sunless, 1983)

Unquestionably a classic of the French New Wave, though it somewhat stands apart from the other familiar films of that period what with it being un photo-roman, driven by still photographs. It’s a canny technique for a low-budget science-fiction film, and director Chris Marker exploits it fully, with a range of photographic effects matched by the familiar poetic narrational style from his documentaries. The plot hinges on its central time-travelling dichotomy, which I think is well-known enough that it’s not exactly a spoiler any more (especially after its reimagining as 12 Monkeys, but look away if so): the man who remembers witnessing his own death. Having seen this sub-30 minute film several times, it’s still enormously affecting the way the film loops around to this, hopping back and forth through time, evoking an apocalyptic Paris through simple effects: dungeon-like settings, a bleak high-contrast photography and the simple foam pads over the eyes that hint at the only technological resources the future still possesses, whereas the present is in a softer monochrome, flickering briefly to life in the eyes of the woman our protagonist is fixated on. I think it’s Godard who is often quoted as saying his films have a beginning, a middle and an end though not necessarily in that order, but La Jetée exemplifies that in practice.

I think Chris Marker’s poetic documentary style of film essay has been incredibly influential, and Sans soleil (1983) is one of his key works, the title also translated on screen as Sunless (and, strangely, in Russian if I recall correctly). It’s a documentary after a fashion, but really it’s a reflective personal essay about memory and understanding, put into the words of a fictional Hungarian cameraman in letters to the narrator, who may be understood to be an alter ego for Marker himself I suppose, as this film was made after a period in which Marker and his New Wave compatriots had been in various leftist collectivist political groups that eschewed authorial credit. In any case, you can see a lot of what has been inspiring about the film though it remains something of a product of its times. It’s mostly concerned with a travelogue around Japan, from the point of view of someone who grew up during World War II, and so turns back every so often to the remnants of the war, probably more in the narrator’s mind than those he films, but it makes for slightly uncomfortably viewing. This kind of othering, or exoticising of foreign people (and the film also flits occasionally to Africa and Cape Verde), sits oddly but really it’s a film about memory that loops in travelogue and even a bit of film criticism (of one of Marker’s favourites, Vertigo, a film which had a strong formative role in La Jetée also) and as such occupies a sort of poetic imaginary. Certainly, it’s not a film that will necessarily help you understand Japan except as it figures in western consciousness of the mid-20th century perhaps.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

La Jetée (aka The Pier, 1962)
Director/Writer Chris Marker; Cinematographers Jean Chiabaut and Marker; Starring Jean Négroni; Length 27 minutes.
Seen at the Paramount, Wellington, Wednesday 30 July 1997 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Thursday 7 January 2021).

Sans soleil (aka Sunless, 1983)
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Chris Marker; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Tuesday 10 June 2003 (and before that on VHS at home, Wellington, August 1997, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Saturday 9 January 2021).

The Stuart Hall Project (2013)

In a sense this film is about one person, Stuart Hall, a prominent cultural theorist who sadly died the year after this was made, but in talking about his work and life, it touches on the history of the United Kingdom, its colonialism and its own struggles in relationship to that colonial past, that continue to echo today, that continue to in fact resound very loudly at this very specific moment.


Despite being born in the UK, I wasn’t educated here and therefore was never really introduced to the work of cultural theorist Stuart Hall, having found out about him near the end of his life when this film was made (he died in 2014). However, the archival clips orchestrated here by John Akomfrah, with a backing of musical clips from Miles Davis records, impresses upon me that he really was one of that dying breed of accessible public intellectuals, so thin on the ground in contemporary discourse and surely never more sorely needed. He speaks of his West Indian roots, of coming to Britain to study at Oxford, and of the persistent racism and colonialist attitudes he encountered. In dealing with periods of his life, and of the history of late-20th century Britain, the film also elucidates the social changes that Hall dealt with in his work, the ways that dreams of the past may have died and that other newer ideals came to replace them, but with a throughline relating to the immigrant and postcolonial experience. The film is as much about the construction of identity itself as it is about telling a story of Hall, but it sort of manages to do all of these things, and though I can’t claim to be a great intellectual, it was persuasive and likeable, and idiosyncratic in its ways as something of a multimedia art project (which Akomfrah has done several of, including about Hall), but also a compelling documentary.

The Stuart Hall Project film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer John Akomfrah; Cinematographer Dewald Aukema; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player on Amazon streaming), London, Wednesday 10 June 2020.

Trop tôt/Trop tard (Too Early/Too Late, 1981)

I wrote about Straub/Huillet’s Antigone in last week’s ‘cinema of resistance’ theme, as a sort of abstract text touching on ideas of resisting authority, but in looking at history, their work also draws out plenty of important themes, largely with regards to class consciousness. Like the films by Ulrike Ottinger and Ruth Beckermann that I covered earlier today, also in the essay film/travelogue vein, Too Early/Too Late juxtaposes historical texts with present reality, drawing out both change and continuity over time.


I think I may like this film best of Straub/Huillet’s works that I’ve seen, though even on second viewing I can’t pretend it’s all gone into me, and an academic introduction to the screening did rather impress on me how little purchase I have on the language for describing this kind of cinema. The film’s topic (and its title) is about the way that revolution never comes at the right time, so I gather. The film itself is structured into two parts, one set in France, the other in Egypt, accompanied by the reading of texts about class consciousness from either country (the one for France is Friedrich Engels, read by Huillet herself in heavily-accented English, and the Egyptian text is by a pair of academics writing pseudonymously as Mahmoud Hussein). The texts don’t exactly match what we see, but seem to be discussing the places shown. For the French-set scenes, Engels runs down a list of various rural towns and the numbers of people within them who live in poverty. We don’t see many people here, but there are a huge number of cars, and these signs and sounds hint at changes to working conditions that the images, in the placidity of the rural scenes, also belie.

Formally, the strategy seems to be constant movement. The camera starts in a car circling a roundabout in Paris (I’m going to guess Place de la Bastille) until the audience is dizzy, and then subsequent images show the camera panning across small towns and then back again constantly. In the Egyptian scenes, we see more people, walking or on bicycles, so at times the camera just sits still and watches them move around and across the scene (such as one memorable scene mimicking the Lumière brothers’ “La Sortie de l’usine Lumière à Lyon” [Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory]). Another shot tracks along a dirt road for the same amount of time as the roundabout in Paris, but here the movement is linear towards the horizon rather than circular. The use of the camera thus seems to be creating formal parallels (as well as dissonances) between the two locations, all while the spoken texts emphasise an understanding of the operation of class consciousness.

However, even if I can’t fully grasp every element of the discourse, I do like a good piece of slow cinema, and for a change with these filmmakers (unlike in, say, Fortini/Cani), there is plenty of time to process the words, as the visuals have an almost hypnotic effect, beautifully framed and shot.

CREDITS
Directors/Writers Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub (adapting a letter to Karl Kautsky and the essay “Die Bauernfrage in Frankreich und Deutschland” [The Peasant Question in France and Germany] by Friedrich Engels, and the book La Lutte des classes en Égypte de 1945 à 1968 “The Class Struggle in Egypt from 1945 to 1968” by Adel Rifaat عادل رأفت and Bahgat El Nadi بهجت النادي [as “Mahmoud Hussein” محمود حسين]); Cinematographers Caroline Champetier, William Lubtchansky, Robert Alazraki and Marguerite Perlado; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Tate Modern, London, Sunday 30 November 2003 (and most recently at the ICA, London, Tuesday 19 March 2019).

Ein flüchtiger Zug nach dem Orient (A Fleeting Passage to the Orient, 1999)

Following on from my post about Ulrike Ottinger’s Chamisso’s Shadow earlier today, another filmmaker crafting a similar meeting between history and travel is Ruth Beckermann, whose work I discuss today takes the form of a travelogue but again uses historical texts and incidents to structure it, finding a little bit of the past in present actions perhaps, and revealing something of the world as it’s not perhaps frequently seen by the West.


An essay film with shades of Chantal Akerman I thought, in the way it elegantly constructs its telling of the story of the peripatetic later life travels of Empress Elisabeth of Austria in the 19th century with its own travelogue visions of Egypt. There are lateral tracking shots of markets and bridges across the Nile, among many other sights and sounds of the country, pulled together by a studied narration (available in both German and English). It seems like something that must be very deeply considered, and I confess that I watched it in probably less than the careful scrutiny it deserves, but I very much warmed to the sense of feeling it imparts (presumably somewhat like the Empress would herself have encountered) of peering somehow through the exoticised Othering of Egypt and its people that exists in the West, of getting a glimpse of life in this bustling world city, albeit with a certain distance.

A Fleeting Passage to the Orient film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ruth Beckermann; Cinematographers Nurith Aviv נורית אביב and Sophie Cadet; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 30 January 2020.

Criterion Sunday 288: F for Fake (aka ?, aka Vérités et mensonges, 1973)

There’s something seemingly inexhaustible about this (essentially final) film by Orson Welles, an essay film in the form of a documentary about fakery whose on-screen title is “?” and has Welles basically wonder aloud for 90 minutes what exactly defines art. In this sense, it’s his film about his own creative practice, which by this point in his career was largely smoke and mirrors anyway, given how few projects he managed to see to completion. Welles appears as the narrator, wandering around these various European locales in his heavy black cape, posing questions and telling tall tales, which even in the hour of film he claims is true, probably aren’t, or at least touch on people whose work has been all about elaborately lying. And then there are minutes-long stretches of the film where he just has guys staring at the semi-clothed body of his partner and muse Oja Kodar, which I suppose implicates the audiences’ desires somewhat in the production of these fictions, although she too is intriguingly a fiction of sorts (using a name Welles gave her). It’s all very clever, and I don’t doubt the care taken in its composition, but it also feels very spontaneous and even a little bit like something tossed off quickly, such that perhaps it’s impossible to know where the boundaries between truth and fiction lie, and whether they even really matter when it comes to art.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Probably the most interesting of the extras on the disc is the feature-length documentary co-directed by Welles’s former partner Oja Kodar, Orson Welles: The One-Man Band (1995), in which all the unfinished projects he was working on are presented as part of a wander through his life, as related by Kodar herself (and a German narrator). At least one of the projects covered in this documentary may have actually reached fruition in the 25 years since it was made — The Other Side of the Wind (finally completed and released last year) — but this assemblage of bits of Orson Welles’s unfinished projects still has a lot to fascinate. Kodar is seen reflecting a bit on their time together in some of the linking footage between the scraps of Welles’ own filmmaking, though more amusing is the footage of an onstage masterclass Welles seems to be leading, as he takes questions from the audience. The film footage itself runs the gamut from lost Shakespeare adaptations (him doing Shylock in a TV version of The Merchant of Venice) to a weird London-set comedy thing where Welles is the one-man street performer of the title (along with a guy getting fitted for a suit, and a cheerful copper), to his film of The Deep, an ill-advised Chinese character for… something, a cherished adaptation of Don Quixote, and then there are just the bits of him reciting random chapters from Moby Dick. All are infused with Welles’s own sense of impish delight at the pleasure of acting: for all his directing talent, he remained an exuberant performer above all else and that much is showcased here.
  • The nine-minute trailer (presented here in a black-and-white version) is essentially a separate short film that Welles made to support the American release of the film in 1976. (Incidentally, the film’s year of production varies somewhat, as it’s listed as 1975 on this disc, which is the year it premiered at the NY Film Festival, but it had been screened earlier in 1973 and 1974 at other European festivals, and is given as 1973 in most places.)
  • Peter Bogdanovich provides a filmed introduction, as he does for a number of Welles projects, and speaks a little about the background to the production and some of the trickery that Welles gets up to in the film.
  • Welles is interviewed by Tom Snyder in 1975 for his TV show Tomorrow, in which Snyder proves himself to be a fairly good interviewer, clutching a cigarette as seems to have been the way back then, and occasionally throwing out rather oddball questions, presumably designed to elicit something from Welles. Still, it nicely covers a lot of his more recent work and Welles remains as always an engaging presence.
  • One of the participants in F for Fake, journalist Clifford Irving, is interviewed by 60 Minutes in 2000, revisiting an earlier story about his Howard Hawks biography hoax, in which Irving fully admits to his fakery and talks about how it came about. There’s also an audio recording from 1972 of Howard Hughes speaking by phone to reporters, a fascinating part of the Hughes mythos if you are into that kind of thing, though he just seems like a slightly befuddled older man (and nowhere near as bonkers as half the things regularly said by the current US President).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Orson Welles; Writers Welles and Oja Kodar; Cinematographers François Reichenbach and Gary Graver; Starring Orson Welles, Oja Kodar; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 26 January 2020 (and originally on VHS at home, Wellington, November 1999).

War Is a Tender Thing (2013)

A Filipino film set in the southern, more contested, part of the country, around the second-largest island of Mindanao. This is a personal documentary that looks at the conflicts from one woman’s point of view, and that of her family, and deals with interfaith marriage.


A personal essay film about the filmmaker’s family in Mindanao (an area also known as the Southern Philippines), this uses family history as a way to represent and interrogate ideas about the past, not least a long-running conflict ostensibly between Christian and Islamic populations in the area. Mindanao isn’t much represented in mainstream cinema, so it’s good to see some attention paid to the area and its people and histories. Certainly, the filmmaker’s family are sceptical about this idea of religious conflict, given that many members of their family have intermarried, and that becomes a theme that moves through the film, of understanding political turbulence through personal connections, and the film eschews any editorial contextualising of the conflict, aside from occasional snippets of television news. Technically, there are some messy edges to the filmmaking (a lot of shaky handheld shots), but it captures a lot of beauty of the region, and there’s an abiding mystery at the film’s heart.

War Is a Tender Thing film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Adjani Guerrero Arumpac; Cinematographers Arumpac and Victor Delotavo Tagaro; Length 74 minutes.
Seen at Genesis, London, Monday 15 April 2019.

Bontoc Eulogy (1995)

Setting itself apart from other films about Filipino history is this striking hybrid documentary, or rather more of a pseudo-documentary that blends actuality with propaganda and staging to create a critique of historical representation on film. There are a huge number of ideas bubbling throughout this hour-long film.


A strange hour-long piece that plays out as an earnest personal essay film about a Filipino-American man’s search for his grandfather, taken from the mountain region tribe of the Bontoc in the Philippines to be a performer at the 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis. This man, ostensibly the filmmaker Marlon Fuentes (indeed, played and voiced by him), reflects on his children and their lost ancestor, while Fuentes the co-director marshals archival footage to illustrate this (personal) historical lacuna. And yet, from the outset, there are hints that something more is going on — for example, the use of clearly fictional material (such as contemporary American propaganda representations of the US-Philippine war of 1898) without context, or implying their status as actuality film, or modern interpolations of ethnographic displays, tribal dancing, or images of his children holding cameras or doing magic tricks, as if representations of the filmmaker’s own practice. So this pseudo-documentary in fact interrogates the uses and purposes of image-making to shape historical representation, so sadly lacking in the education system not just of the US but the Philippines too (as seen in John Gianvito’s documentaries). In other words, there’s a lot going on here that’s worth unpacking.

CREDITS
Directors Marlon Fuentes and Bridget Yearian; Writer Fuentes; Cinematographers Rubén Domingo, Fuentes, Tommy Hafalla, Chris Manley and Yearian; Starring Marlon Fuentes; Length 56 minutes.
Seen at Genesis, London, Tuesday 30 January 2018.