Two Short Documentaries by Lynne Sachs: The Last Happy Day (2009) and The Washing Society (2018)

One of the special focus strands of the Sheffield Doc/Fest online programme in 2020 was the experimental documentary filmmaker Lynne Sachs, who has an extensive body of work across a number of different documentary interests. I watched two of her films out of the handful made available (some of the rest are still online for festival attendees, so I am determined to catch up with them), and present reviews below — or, maybe I should say, more impressionistic observances as I cannot claim they are as deeply considered as I would like.


The Washing Society (2018)

This isn’t a long film, clocking in at about 45 minutes, but it’s a curious blend of documentary and staged fiction. It films a number of New York laundromats, showing their working environments and including some comments by a number of the workers. However, it starts with a Black woman speaking an historical text and then places her in the space of a laundromat opening for the day, and throughout the film her presence functions as a sort of historical commentary making clear the racialised nature of this work, which is somehow so intangible and invisible to so many people. As the film progresses, the testimonies start to become more like monologues, rather more clearly delivered by actors, itself eventually seguing into a musical performance piece on the machines themselves.

The Washing Society film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Lynne Sachs and Lizzie Olesker; Cinematographer Sean Hanley; Length 44 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Saturday 4 July 2020.


The Last Happy Day (2009)

I find it sometimes very easy to criticise documentaries for following a standard talking heads format, but of course Lynne Sachs doesn’t even approach anything resembling the clichés of the form. This medium-length piece does, however, use occasional on-screen captions to contextualise her story of a distant relative, the Hungarian Jew Sandor Lenard (aka Alexander Lenard), who fled shortly before the outbreak of World War II and eventually found himself in Brazil, where he undertook Latin translations, including of Winnie the Pooh (sorry, Winnie Ille Pu). That said, her experimental practice means that it’s difficult to pick out everything that’s going on here, and I imagine wider viewing of her oeuvre would help more in that respect, but there seems to be an idea of the painful ruptures of war and exile being healed at least somewhat by language, or perhaps the idea of translation (given that the language in question is hardly a widely shared one). It’s a family story, too, so children in Sachs’ own family appear on screen to read Lenard’s letters or comment on them (very eloquently, given their age). These are ideas that come out, not inaccessibly, but in a dense mixture of text and image and voice.

The Last Happy Day film posterCREDITS
Director Lynne Sachs; Cinematographers Sachs and Ethan Mass; Length 38 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Tuesday 21 July 2020.

Drift (2017)

Rounding out my week of German-language women’s cinema is this slow cinema piece that barely features any language at all, often preferring the movement of water in the ocean to its human protagonists. It’s not perhaps going to be to all tastes, but it’s very much to mine!


I love a bit of slow cinema, but it’s no simple matter making a good work in this style; it’s not just a matter of pointing a camera at a swelling ocean and letting it roll, even though there are periods throughout this film where that feels like all there is — and certainly people reviewing this film who could not be more bored it seems (though I’m surprised they even watched it in the first place). The sequence of shots of ocean swells — roiling, calm, sun-dappled, moonlit, and all variations in between — that takes place for a significant stretch of the film feels a little like a minimalist film by someone like James Benning (though the final sequence rather more directly recalls Michael Snow), but it has its own sense of poetry. The sounds overlaid (of water obviously) create a beautiful, almost hallucinatory, series of shots in which I myself drifted off at times, but of which I can recall the various textures of the water, the sunlight catching corners of the waves and glinting out flashes of blinding light while on the soundtrack what sounded like water running down a drain as a wood fire burned nearby (it was all rather impressionistic, but that was what I heard), or at another time the bright glare of moonlight in the sky casting a faint trail of light across the waves. This, however, is a sequence that links two sections of the film with human protagonists, who themselves are connected somewhat yet find themselves drifting apart. There are a lot of exquisitely framed and lit shots of quiet (or disquiet perhaps), and a tangible sense of a spiritual movement. Obviously it’s not to all tastes, but those who like this kind of thing will love it.

Drift film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Helena Wittmann; Starring Theresa George, Josefina Gill; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 2 May 2019.

Menschenfrauen (1980)

In my German-language women directors theme week, I’ve been running a strand of secondary reviews each day of films that are a little bit odd and experimental, and this one by Austrian mixed media artist Valie Export. Her work here (which is sometimes credited as 1979 or even 1977) plays with feminist ideas of the era, almost comically at times.


There’s something very eighties about this stylistically heterogeneous exploration of male chauvinism and the terrible toll it can exact on women. That’s not just because of its Tom Selleck-like moustachioed lothario (Klaus Wildbolz), or the grainy film stock. Maybe it’s because of the many formal ways the Austrian director experiments with presenting her message, or maybe it’s just that I didn’t always love it. There are, however, moments when you wonder if the way it uses all those distancing formal techniques isn’t just a joke at the expense of the earnest male dialecticians of filmmaking who usually do this kind of stuff. In any case, it’s interesting.

Menschenfrauen DVD coverCREDITS
Director Valie Export; Writer Peter Weibel; Cinematographers Wolfgang Dickmann and Karl Kases; Starring Klaus Wildbolz, Renée Felden, Maria Martina, Susanne Widl; Length 132 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 3 June 2017.

Two Films by Ulrike Ottinger: Ticket of No Return (1979) and Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia (1989)

Though Ulrike Ottinger is probably one of the key female figures in the New Germany Cinema that sprung up in the late-1960s, and one who started directing her own films by the early-1970s, she was a filmmaker who until recently was fairly unknown to me. I’ve seen three of her features just this year, and have already written about the epic documentary travelogue Chamisso’s Shadow (2016). Like a lot of filmmakers who are drawn to documentary, there’s a lot of it even in her fiction features, particularly the Mongolian-set Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia (with its very careful use of three different languages in its original title). Even the 1979 film I deal with below has little elements of real life, as I gather that one of the characters was a real-life homeless woman well-known in the area at the time, and it wilfully dispenses with narrative expectations as its central character gets even more messy (the German title translates as “diary of a drinker”). It was screened as part of an online film festival recently, and I look forward to catching up with more of Ottinger’s work.

Continue reading “Two Films by Ulrike Ottinger: Ticket of No Return (1979) and Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia (1989)”

Neun Leben hat die Katze (The Cat Has Nine Lives, 1968)

Just a quick extra review of a late-60s New German Cinema experiment that didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, but still impressed me as something odd and interesting. It was presented as part of a touring programme in the UK of less well-known films by women directors breaking the mould.


What a very strange film, largely due to its experimental narrative form, which intercuts these stories of women (Katharina and Anne) in a sort of associative way, just little shards or shreds of narrative, sometimes representing their fantasies as far as I can tell, sometimes humorous vignettes. It’s very hard to describe really, except that it seems to present a subjective view of women’s experiences that is both of a piece with other experiments in the New German Cinema but also quite apart from the usual patriarchal constructions of desire. I’d want to watch it again before claiming to understand any more about it, but it certainly has its heady late-60s quality.

The Cat Has Nine Lives film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ula Stöckl; Cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann; Starring Liane Hielscher, Kristine De Loup; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Tuesday 7 August 2018.

ओम-दर-ब-दर Om Dar-B-Dar (1988)

A strange, experimental Indian film that never got a proper release when it was made, but was recently restored and re-released a few years back, where I saw it at the London Film Festival. As you’ll see from my review, I can’t say I understood it.


An Indian film from 1988 only recently restored and screened, as apparently it was too out-there for the original producers and never got much of a release at the time. And I can understand that. It is extremely difficult to follow, though it may help to be familiar with some of the reference points, and as a non-Indian I am very much not. It follows a sort of free-associative dream (or perhaps nightmare) logic, featuring a young man named Om (Aditya Lakhia) and a lot of to-do about frogs, coins, and other imagery that was densely-packed and edited in a very non-linear way, such that I generally didn’t have much of a clue of even who the main characters were, let alone what was happening. I can’t definitely say it’s bad, as a lot of the imagery was compelling, and I like a mystery.

Om Dar-B-Dar film posterCREDITS
Director Kamal Swaroop; Writer Kuku; Cinematographers Ashwin Kaul and Milind Ranade; Starring Aditya Lakhia आदित्य लाखिया, Anita Kanwar अनीता कंवर; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 7 October 2017.

Two 1986 British Films about Race Relations: Handsworth Songs and The Passion of Remembrance

It can sometimes feel to me as if too many people in the UK (or, say, Australia or NZ, as other examples) look to race riots in the United States and feel somehow as if they are unrelated to struggles taking place in their own country, as if the toxic legacy of slavery in the US doesn’t somehow also apply to other countries, especially ones with their own long colonialist histories. Another sad theme of my week dedicated to the ‘cinema of resistance’ (as I’m calling it), is that struggles that were documented playing out decades ago, and sometimes centuries ago, are still relevant.

Looking to the situation in the UK, these two films were made almost 35 years ago, dealing with race relations — and, in the case of the first film (a documentary), race riots — playing out in the United Kingdom. The impetus to rioting may have been somewhat quelled by a report which identified institutional racism within the police and took steps to alleviate the immediate problems, but it’s certainly very far from the case that the police in the UK (or Australia or NZ) are somehow colour-blind or that there are no cases of violence against the bodies of minority ethnic people. You can look to more recent films like The Hard Stop or Generation Revolution to see that clearly enough, and the ongoing fight against injustice. Race, often intertwined with class, continues to be a source of conflict in most Western countries, and the police and forces of state violence continue to be the main actors, even under conditions where it seems unrelated (witness a report even just today in the UK linking Black and minority ethnicities to higher instances of COVID-related deaths).

For those interested, Handsworth Songs can be watched on YouTube (so look it up), though I can’t find anywhere you can see The Passion of Remembrance.

Continue reading “Two 1986 British Films about Race Relations: Handsworth Songs and The Passion of Remembrance”

The Grand Bizarre (2018)

An experimental film, expanded from a short film by an artist who mostly works in that form, is this fascinating piece of cut-up collage combined with stop-motion animation by American auteur Jodie Mack. To my everlasting shame, sometimes when watching movies at home, I have a tendency to drift into checking my phone (perhaps Twitter, perhaps emails, perhaps looking up the film’s Wikipedia entry), because it’s 2020 and that’s the kind of thing many of us do these days. (No, no, I’m sure you don’t, I believe you. I can only speak for myself here.) Anyway, I didn’t do that during this hour-long experimental film, and that’s not of course the best thing I can say for it, but my point is: it certainly never bored me, as non-narrative as it is.


This is unquestionably a colourful work, whose title plays on the idea of a bazaar, cutting up (not literally but also sometimes literally) images of fabrics and juxtaposing them in various settings — on shelves in shops, at home, in luggage, on travels, on conveyor belts at airports, all kinds of settings. Alongside these fabrics — not to mention in them — we see the world in a way, glimpses of landscapes, places, roads, people, cuttings from a book of languages, the various texts and shapes of the words at play alongside the warp and weft of the weaving, colourful in so many ways. And then there’s the soundtrack, which pulses with its own energy. It’s a rather delightful film that conjures ideas and feelings in the kind of way that cinema can do best, and must have been quite some effort to make.

The Grand Bizarre film posterCREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Jodie Mack; Length 61 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Monday 4 May 2020.

王国(あるいはその家について) Okoku (Aruiwa Sonoka ni Tsuite) (Domains, 2019)

I couldn’t stay away from Japan for long, and this is actually a film I meant to include a couple of weeks ago when I was covering Japanese films, but I forgot. It’s a new release that came out on Mubi last month (though has since moved off there), and is a rather experimental work that reminds me a little of Rivette’s Out 1 in dealing with actors and rehearsals, if not quite possessing that film’s grand scope.


This is undoubtedly a rather challenging, experimental work. It has a structure which constantly loops back on itself — and which starts with a final confession of a murder that creates a simmering tension that runs through all the rather quotidian interactions which follow. Aside from the fiendish structure though, the experimentation is mostly in the acting, as footage of the actors performing their lines on location are interwoven with far more extensive scenes of them doing a table read beforehand and subsequent rehearsals, such that we hear bits of dialogue multiple times. This has the effect of sort of imbricating the past in the present, of creating a further level of awareness of what’s going on with the characters, though for me it wasn’t always successful and had an almost arid feeling at times. Clearly others have connected far more fully with this work, which is trying to stretch the means of cinematic storytelling in bold ways, and possibly would work better on a big screen with fewer distractions.

Domains film posterCREDITS
Director Natsuka Kusano 草野なつか; Writer Tomoyuki Takahashi 高橋知由; Cinematographer Yasutaka Watanabe 渡邉寿岳; Starring Asami Shibuya 澁谷麻美, Tomomitsu Adachi 足立智充, Tomo Kasajima 笠島智; Length 150 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 9 April 2020.

Nona. Si me mojan, yo los quemo (Nona. If They Soak Me, I’ll Burn Them, 2019)

Okay it’s time to take a break from an almost constant two weeks of Japanese films on my blog, and to switch it up I’m going to do a week focusing on new films directed by women which have premiered online since the lockdown started. I’m going to begin with this one because it’s probably the most experimental in form, and also it’s just left Mubi after being up a month. I’ll get to ones which are currently available soon though. It reminds me a little of Lina Rodgriguez‘s work, but with a somewhat more tricky narrative structure that can make things rather opaque.


This is, to say the least, an oblique film. It’s about the elderly woman of the title (Josefina Ramírez), who bookends the film seen throwing a molotov cocktail of her own creation. The rest of the film seamlessly blends staged fiction with documentary aesthetics to the extent that I’m not exactly clear where each starts and the other ends. We see her in cars riding her around her assumed neighbourhood, with vague references to a previous domicile and a history that has brought her out to the seaside. I’m not exactly clear what the story is, but this is experimental filmmaking which trades in elemental motifs (fire, water, revolution). I wanted to like it a lot more than I did, but I feel like maybe the filmmaker is trying out narrative techniques to hone her craft.

Nona. If They Soak Me, I’ll Burn Them film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Camila José Donoso; Cinematographer Matías Illanes; Starring Josefina Ramírez, Gigi Reyes; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 23 April 2020.