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.

La hora de los hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces, 1968)

Here on Filmcentric, I am doing a week of South American cinema (focused on Argentina) as La flor (2018) is being released cinematically in the UK on Friday 13 September, a film which is longer even than the one I’m discussing here. Filmmaking in South America really came to international attention in the revolutionary 1960s, under the label “Third Cinema”, and Argentine filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino were key amongst the figures within this movement, publishing a manifesto called Hacia un tercer cine (“Toward a Third Cinema”) the year after this three-part film. One of the key tenets was to resist neocolonialist and capitalist forces, and challenge viewers to include an awareness of class differences and power structures within the entertainment they consumed.


It’s clear at least that watching a film like this 50 years on in the institutionalised setting of the British Film Institute is a quite different experience from what the filmmakers intended, and probably effectively changes some of its meaning. After all, it’s a film that constantly mentions the necessity for the audience to continue the discussion outside the film, to reflect on it and complete its meaning themselves, and even includes intertitles exhorting them to stop the film and have discussions at various points. Instead, my impression is of an inexhaustible supply of facts and testimonies (and sometimes more-or-less propagandistic agitprop content) about post-war Argentinean politics, the rise of Juan Perón and the subsequent coup against him. If you’re not familiar with the events (as I am not) it can sometimes be a little difficult to follow, but the documentary footage, archival clips and supporting material from other “Third World” conflicts is joined by large amounts of textual quotes — alternately printed, flashed, zoomed into, or printed character-by-character on screen, to keep one’s attention presumably. It’s exhaustive, and it never quite seems to find a place to finish, but it’s a model of filmmaking that would have great impact on revolutionary modes of presentation, and still exerts its own fascination now.

Film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas; Cinematographers Juan Carlos Desanzo and Solanas; Length 260 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 13 May 2018.

Two Recent Mexican Documentaries by Women: Tempestad (2016) and Faust (2018)

On my regular Women Filmmakers’ Wednesday slot, I don’t have any specific women in Mexican cinema to focus on, as there haven’t been a huge number over the years (far more as actors than in the major roles behind the camera), but there have been an increasing number of documentaries of interest. Both the ones I focus on below sit somewhere between narrative and documentary, blending observational techniques with a more poetic sensibility.

Continue reading “Two Recent Mexican Documentaries by Women: Tempestad (2016) and Faust (2018)”

Là-bas (Down There, 2006)

A Nos Amours, a collective dedicated to the highest ideals of cinema as art, has been screening month by month over the past few years all the works of Chantal Akerman, of which this was the penultimate instalment. So it was hugely saddening to hear of her death since I saw this film only a week ago. She will always be remembered for the great Jeanne Dielman (1975), not to mention her other major films of the 1970s including Je tu il elle (1976) and Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (1978), a personal favourite. Her newest film, No Home Movie, will be screening on 30 October (I already have my tickets) and there’s a major installation/exhibition at Ambika P3 starting on that date also, so there remains a chance for film lovers to celebrate her work here in London.


I don’t think there’s any easy way in to Akerman’s work, but Down There probably isn’t it. It makes very few concessions to audience pleasure, but it is after its fashion very rigorous about what it presents. The film consists mostly of fixed views from within a Tel Aviv apartment, shot on a grainy video through the close-set blinds of the apartment, both showing the world outside (neighbouring apartment blocks and these vague glimpses we get of their residents going about their lives) at the same time as presenting an idea of entrapment. It’s a personal essay film, dealing with Akerman’s time living in Israel and her relationship to that country, which can at best be said to be ambivalent. Periodic voiceovers have Akerman musing on her situation, on what’s been happening outside her apartment block (a recent explosion) and on her family history, while we also hear her take phone calls and brush people off. It makes for a suffocating sense of (self) imprisonment only lifted towards the end by a brief sequence on a beach, and some shots that aren’t taken through the blinds. Down There may not be the easiest film to approach, but it feels like a very intimate, artistic take on personal history and Jewish identity.

Down There film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Chantal Akerman; Cinematographers Akerman and Robert Fenz; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 1 October 2015.

Beyond Clueless (2014)

Charlie Lyne, the youthful director and writer of this visual essay about the teen film cycle that seemed so omnipresent after the success of Clueless (1995), is a film critic, and in many ways it’s surprising more critics don’t use the form they’re critiquing to put forward their argument. (Then again, maybe they do, but if so, I suspect it’s mostly the domain of YouTube videographers.) The Northern Irish critic Mark Cousins has made a range of essay films about various aspects of film history, while Jean-Luc Godard took to the form in his usual idiosyncratic way with Histoire(s) du cinéma, but other prominent examples are rather scarce.

Lyne’s project may be more straightforward than Godard’s, but it still allows for plenty of interesting juxtapositions, often carried as much by the swelling and jagged music of his musical collaborators Summer Camp as by Fairuza Balk’s dreamily-detached narration. The film enjoyably marshals all those iconic teen movie experiences — the high school corridor gauntlet, the cliques in the school canteen, the prom, the house party, and of course the lust and consummation of rampaging hormones — but also interrogates more closely the tropes and how they’re represented through chapters which delineate a sort of coming-of-age life cycle (from conformity and rebellion to social reintegration and maturation). Along the way the film wisely avoids the familiar works to focus on the revealing and surprising byways, from the more basic personality-makeover tropes of Slap Her, She’s French! (2002), to the insidious sexual politics of The Girl Next Door and the confused homoerotic undertones of EuroTrip (both 2004), and almost too many other films in between. There’s a creeping sense, in fact, that taken together, the whole genre is just cynically exploitative and retrogressively conservative in its morality (not that this stopped me loving many of these films at the time).

Beyond Clueless is not a history of the genre and it doesn’t waste any time trying to define what counts as a teen film, so there’s still room in the marketplace for something that does that (taking in, say, the John Hughes comedies and straight-to-video filth of the 80s, to the lacquered cheerfulness of the post-High School Musical generation). Instead this is a personal essay that is more concerned with what this distinct subset of period films say about us as an audience, hungrily lapping up all these films which are so distant from our own lives (even for those who live in the States), and touching on how those meanings may have changed as we ourselves get older and wiser. It doesn’t always cohere perfectly, and some of the nuances feel lost by Balk’s uninflected voice as we’re carried along by an impressionistic deluge of barely-contextualised clips, but it’s put together in a way that’s surely more accessible than a lengthy written post on the subject would be. If it feels like a starting point for further conversation about what we should take from all these films, then it’s a fascinating conversation and one that I enjoy listening to.

Beyond Clueless film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Charlie Lyne; Starring Fairuza Balk; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Wednesday 14 January 2015.