Shirkers (2018)

The UK today sees the limited cinematic release of a new documentary Be Natural, about silent film pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché. I’ve covered a number of other documentaries about women filmmakers, but this intriguing one released on Netflix tells an autobiographical story of a young woman in Singapore trying to make her own film.


The director of this documentary was like many of my friends in the 1990s: putting together zines, writing about indie underground culture, and obsessing about movies. Unlike those friends I had, Sandi made a for-real legit on-film-and-everything movie. It was pretty much the first proper indie film made in Singapore, written by Sandi and produced by her friends, who all pretended to be competent and older than their teenage years in order to secure funding (and frankly, as far as I’m concerned, just doing that makes them pretty damn competent), and directed by a film school professor called Georges. The film was never released, though, because after filming had been completed, Georges absconded with the reels, never to be seen again by any of them. So this is the story of a lost film, in a sense (though the reels were recovered 20 years later after his death), and then an incomplete film (because the soundtrack was never recovered).

It’s a fascinating project, and the original film of Shirkers (it had the same title as this documentary) seems to share all kinds of resonances with contemporary 90s movies, and from what we see here, it looks like it was pretty interesting. The story of the missing director Georges, of Sandi and her friends’ subsequent careers, and of Sandi reassessing her youthful persona with hindsight and the help of her interviewees, as well as the recovered footage of her film, is of course the real story, and it’s a fascinating one.

Shirkers film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Sandi Tan 陳善治; Cinematographer Iris Ng; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 26 October 2018.

Visages villages (Faces Places, 2017)

Agnès Varda made a lot of documentaries, and her final one, Varda by Agnès (2019), was the most direct film to deal with her own work. However, this penultimate film — while ostensibly being about pseudonymous French street photographer and sort-of-graffiti artist JR — is about her own practice as an artist in some way, or at least captures something of the spirit she brought to her feature filmmaking.


This is a sweet film in much of the way of Varda’s documentary works (a lot of which are extras for DVD releases, and all of which are worth watching), a very self-consciously confected tale of two people meeting and collaborating on artworks across a series of small French villages. JR’s art seems to involve photographing people and pasting them on buildings and other large-scale public spaces, which is fairly whimsical, and then there’s a made-up meet-cute and they hit the road in a picaresque tale of encountering small-town people on their level and then (very literally) aggrandising them. I’d feel weird about seeing myself on walls, but most of the people here don’t, and perhaps that’s Varda’s power. She is so sweet but always there’s that slight undercurrent of shade, such as hinting at JR being a Godard-like figure and then revealing later that Godard is a bit of a pr!ck (or a lot of one, though she’s quite nice about it). It ambles along amiably enough as a film, and perhaps that’s all any film needs.

Faces Places film posterCREDITS
Directors Agnès Varda and JR; Writer Varda; Cinematographers Romain Le Bonniec, Claire Duguet, Nicolas Guicheteau, Valentin Vignet and Raphaël Minnesota; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Sunday 16 September 2018.

Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen (2018)

There have been women making films since even the start of cinema, as evidenced by the new documentary about French pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché, and this documentary takes a personal look at an important indigenous New Zealand woman filmmaker who isn’t perhaps as well known as she should be.


I’m rather surprised this gained a release (however small) in the UK, given that it’s hardly likely many people in this country have access to have seen Merata Mita’s work. I studied film when growing up in Wellington, so I’d seen her key works: Patu! (1983), a documentary about the 1981 Springbok rugby tour in the face of anti-apartheid protestors; and Mauri (1988), an evocation of small town Maori life. We get clips of those works here, contextualised within her career, but most fascinating is the figure she cuts: from being a working mum — a teacher in a small town bringing up several kids from a couple of unpromising husbands — to getting into film almost by accident, as a byproduct of her own outspokenness on social issues (which within the context of conservative New Zealand society of the time, made her something of an activist). Her earliest screen appearance is speaking out about an abortion in the late-70s, and from there she went on to make several short films which culminated in the work on Patu! But throughout her career, in the clips marshalled here by her son Heperi (an archivist, who also narrates the film), we see the way she confronted the kind of changes she wanted to see in NZ society and the actions she took to achieve them. Later in her life, she advocated around the world on behalf of indigenous filmmakers, living in Hawaii and working extensively among First Nations peoples in the US and Canada. Hers is an inspiring story, and despite its framing as a family documentary, her voice and work on decolonisation and the representation of indigenous narratives is wonderful to see.

Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen film posterCREDITS
Director Heperi Mita; Cinematographer Mike Jonathan; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Tuesday 7 May 2019.

Shooting the Mafia (2019)

A new documentary called Be Natural about Alice Guy-Blaché, a pioneering woman filmmaker of the silent era, is released to (presumably limited) UK cinemas this Friday. Therefore for my themed week on the blog this week I’ll be covering films (documentaries mostly, I imagine) about women filmmakers and photographers.


This new film by veteran documentarian Kim Longinotto is, ostensibly, about Letizia Battaglia, a now elderly woman who made a career in photography, capturing the spirit of her home (the island of Sicily), and particularly in documenting the atrocities committed by the Mafia there. However, Letizia is in fact just a guide into this world of organised crime, and the film spends more of its time — including archival video footage, TV news and interviews, quite aside from Letizia’s photography — tracking the way in which the Mafia controlled society, and were progressively brought down by prosecutors, many of whom met their own unfortunate ends thanks to this violence. It’s a film about the legacy of violence on a people, and it also happens to be about one woman who played her own small part in documenting that and helping to shed light on the injustice.

Shooting the Mafia film posterCREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Kim Longinotto; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Saturday 21 December 2019.

None Shall Escape (1944)

Looking back at war films I’ve seen in the last few years (a genre I’m not a huge acolyte of), I find most of the ones I’ve seen cover World War II, during which conflict cinema became a powerful propaganda tool (perhaps not for the first time, but certainly more widely than ever before). This 1944 film takes the war film genre and spins it as a speculative fiction, addressing in real time the war crimes of the Nazis and how they will come to pay for them (as, indeed, they did).


A rather extraordinary speculative fiction, made in 1943 (or at least that’s the production date on the film; it was released the following year) but set in a future where the allies have won the war and put Nazi war criminals on trial. It focuses on one character, Wilhelm Grimm (Alexander Knox), and charts his descent from schoolteacher in Poland to, well, Nazi war criminal. The trial is the framing device introducing figures from his life like the priest who tells of how in 1919 he was going to marry Marja (Marsha Hunt), a Polish woman who taught alongside him, except that World War I had changed him, and now he felt as if the Germans could yet conquer the world. Then his brother Karl takes the stand and narrates how Wilhelm returned to stay with him in Munich in 1923, but was attracted by the rising star of one A. Hitler, whose ideology continued to warp his mind in successive flashbacks to 1929 and 1933, at which point Wilhelm has his brother sent to a concentration camp (which he has somehow survived to be giving testimony), at which point we move to some pretty full-on wartime scenes of Nazi atrocities (not least the burning of books, the murder of all the Jews along with the town’s rabbi, who recites the kaddish as he dies, and then the forced prostitution of the women). The final speech of the judge is directly into camera and explicitly addressed to the UN, so this is essentially a propaganda film, but it’s one that’s fairly prescient about the way that things would be for a long time to come — and which sadly makes it still fairly contemporary now. Nazis are bad.

None Shall Escape film posterCREDITS
Director Andre DeToth; Writers Lester Cole, Alfred Neumann and Joseph Than; Cinematographer Lee Garmes; Starring Marsha Hunt, Alexander Knox, Henry Travers; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Wednesday 27 June 2018.

Journey’s End (2017)

War films of the last few years have understandably been focused more on World War I, given its centenary, as does the new release 1917. I’ve hardly been following all of them (though I wasn’t a huge fan of Testament of Youth, to take one example), but one of the strongest was this film based on a 1928 play. It has a stagy feel to it, but set in the trenches that feels somewhat appropriate.


I was taken along to see this war film, and honestly had no expectation of liking it (it’s not a film or a genre I would have sought out otherwise), but it’s a really solidly mounted, excellently acted character study of men under duress in World War I. When I say solidly mounted, I mean it looks like a film with a big budget, but I expect it didn’t have that — I suppose it helps that it’s set largely in the trenches, but it never feels cheaply done. It really helps too to have acting as good as Paul Bettany gives here (and of course Toby Jones is no slouch either), and the whole project is immensely lifted by the way he plays his character: genial, world-weary, not given to false optimism, but never defeated by the grinding awfulness of the men’s lives. (We see a fair bit of that.) And when I say it never feels cheap, I mean too that it’s not prone to being overly sentimental — there are opportunities for tears (I found the letters home particularly poignant), and many of the men are emotional enough on screen — but it eschews the orchestral in favour of a cleanly minimal score, and it’s the telling moments of class divisions and generational conflicts that are among the most interesting bits.

Journey's End film posterCREDITS
Director Saul Dibb; Writer Simon Reade (based on the play by R. C. Sherriff); Cinematographer Laurie Rose; Starring Sam Claflin, Asa Butterfield, Paul Bettany, Tom Sturridge, Toby Jones; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at Vue Piccadilly, London, Wednesday 22 January 2018.

She Goes to War (1929)

Closer to the template for a war film, but with a woman as the protagonist (dressed up as man to fight in the trenches), and in dire need of proper restoration, is this late-silent film by Henry King, which screened as part of a retrospective on the director at last year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival.


For a film that’s been utterly mangled by history — a strange hybrid of sound and silent filmmaking that was more or less lost upon its 1929 release, re-edited to half its length in 1939, and re-released with a sententious prologue that suggests it’s telling the TRUTH about war without bias, but in fact seems more keen to say “please America don’t join the current conflict” — this is a fascinating document. It doesn’t work very well at all dramatically: after an initial parade and soldiers shipping out, there’s a cut direct to a shot of a cemetery and thence an extended period of time with the soldiers in the trenches. Dramatic irony is deployed as one woman sings a song (aided by a ukulele for a bit) about a happy land while soldiers fall down dead around her (the happy land being Heaven, of course), and then the film only really gets going in the last third, as one woman disguises herself as a man to see the front, where she gets tediously mocked by the guys who’ve figured out her game, but eventually proves herself somewhat. There’s a terrifying sequence of tanks rumbling through flames, but this is a film crying out for proper restoration.

She Goes to War film posterCREDITS
Director Henry King; Writers Rupert Hughes, Fred de Gresac, Howard Estabrook and John Monk Saunders; Cinematographers John P. Fulton and Tony Gaudio; Starring Eleanor Boardman, John Holland; Length 50 minutes (as it currently exists, but originally 87 minutes).
Seen at Cinema Jolly, Bologna, Tuesday 25 June 2019.

Tuntematon sotilas (The Unknown Soldier, 1955)

Unlike some of my other choices during this themed week of war films, this one very much is in the classic war genre, as a group of soldiers band together to fight the enemy, in what has become a patriotic epic for Finland, remade many times over the years.


I gather this occupies quite a prominent place in the Finnish film pantheon, and I suppose that must largely be for the way it ties in a country’s idea of itself into a group of characters at a key and difficult moment in their history, via a novel and many subsequent adaptations. It tells the story of a group of soldiers in a machine gun unit during World War II, when Finland was allied with Germany against its old foe of Russia, and the key to pulling that off I suppose is to focus tightly on these men, with all their various issues with their commanding officers as well as, eventually, the whole idea of the fight itself. (Not because they don’t hate the Russians, but just because it all seems so futile.) The core of the film is in these interactions, whether in training camps at the start, trudging across the country to the front lines, and then in the trenches, and you get a sense of the different guys, even if at times the film is somewhat reliant on familiar tropes: the cynical one, the grumpy one, the anti-authoritarian and yet supremely talented one (who may be a hero but is also a bit of a d!ck). The chief feeling in these scenes is a gentle sort of comedy, even a hint of satire — it never feels fully mocking of the war itself, but there’s something reminiscent of a lot of wartime-set television sitcoms to these interactions, a gentle sort of self-deprecating humour. And then, periodically, one or more of the characters faces something really nasty that jars you out of that feeling, as these almost interminable battle scenes stretch out, replete with falling bombs, trees blowing up, bullets flying and people getting crushed, maimed or shot. Some of the humour has dated somewhat, and it does run rather long, but it feels like it defines the spirit of a certain era of a country, and for someone like me who has no connection to Finland, I can almost see the appeal.

The Unknown Soldier film posterCREDITS
Director Edvin Laine; Writer Juha Nevalainen (based on the novel by Väinö Linna); Cinematographers Osmo Harkimo, Antero Ruuhonen, Olavi Tuomi and Pentti Unho; Starring Kosti Klemelä, Heikki Savolainen, Reino Tolvanen; Length 169 minutes.
Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Tuesday 29 January 2019.

Sarraounia (aka Sarraounia, une reine africaine, 1986)

Although my theme this week is building up to the release of 1917, this African epic isn’t strictly-speaking a war film (at least as far as its generic cues go), though it deals with a war between European colonisers and an African people who strongly resist.


A bold African epic about the titular queen who resists the French colonising armies in, I gather, what is present day Niger. In terms of the film, the queen (Aï Keïta) is more talked about and feared than actually seen, and in the end it is the white men who sort of do it to themselves, but the focus is on the moustachioed Captain Voulet (Jean-Roger Milo), not very far from some of the roles that Klaus Kinski would play for Herzog, as a power-addled self-destructive little dictator whose military rank makes him believe he is somehow beyond reproach. The film is really about the rot at the core of the colonialist mission, exemplified by this man, whose fixation on defeating queen Sarraounia becomes his undoing. It’s beautifully filmed in widescreen, with a score of traditional African percussion, along with some rousing acting from the non-professional (African) cast. It suggests not just the way that the 19th century European colonial project was resisted by Africans, but also some of the ways that African disunity allowed it to take hold in the first place, while also being celebratory of heroes like Sarraounia.

Sarraounia film posterCREDITS
Director Med Hondo ميد هوندو; Writers Hondo and Abdoulaye Mamani (based on a novel by Mamani); Cinematographer Guy Famechon; Starring Aï Keïta, Jean-Roger Milo; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Saturday 7 December 2019.

Top Hat (1935)

Wrapping up my several weeks catching up on my favourite films I saw for the first time in 2019, is this Astaire-Rogers musical, generally considered to be their best collaboration and certainly the most famous of them all. It’s a delightful attempt to recreate some of the Lubitsch touch (with some uncredited inspiration taken from Hungarian plays of the era, which fits in with the European-ness of the whole undertaking), and it moves along with gay abandon.


I do not love a mistaken identity plot, and it was probably a tired device even in 1935, but somehow this film manages to make it almost acceptable, though it remains a source of great frustration every time someone fails to say their name and the film gets into some huge contortions trying to keep the whole thing going. And yet! Of course it is delightful, for there is dancing. Fred Astaire plays Jerry, a professional dancer, something of a big name who finds himself in (some weird cinematic form of) London to star in Horace (Edward Everett Horton)’s stage show, a dramatic conceit that’s quickly forgotten about when… Jerry falls in love with Ginger Rogers’s Dale (not playing a character who is a professional dancer, just a character who happens to be really good at dancing) and must fly off to (an even weirder cinematic soundstage recreation of) Venice to woo her. There are all kinds of misunderstandings wrapped up with this convoluted plot, among which one that leads to Horace being punched in the face by his wife Madge (Helen Broderick, who is, by the way, a comic highlight along with Erik Rhodes as the archly self-regarding Beddini) but the writing keeps it all tight and moving along swiftly. Ginger’s dresses are also particularly on point, and the whole thing is, to use a term which was then used rather more casually (but nonetheless aptly), a gay affair. Nice to see, too, that Eric Blore’s valet Bates uses they/them pronouns.

Top Hat film posterCREDITS
Director Mark Sandrich; Writer Dwight Taylor and Allan Scott; Cinematographer David Abel; Starring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Edward Everett Horton, Helen Broderick, Erik Rhodes, Eric Blore; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Tuesday 30 December 2019.