Unrest (2017)

A documentary which won the Illuminate Award at the 2017 Sheffield Doc/Fest is this one, dealing with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a still misunderstood and under-researched ailment suffered by a large number of people. It’s one of a range of documentaries which are dedicated to publicising situations which don’t get much media attention, in the hope of effecting some meaningful change.


A moving and quite effective documentary about ME (also known as “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome”). If nothing else, the filmmaker — Jennifer Brea, also the primary subject of the documentary and someone who lives with this — makes it clear how little understood the disease is (partly a lack of understanding and funding by those who have the money and power to effect proper research), and how much scepticism about it remains within society. She also is very clear about how debilitating it can be, and while she herself is sometimes mobile, she interviews a range of people at various places in the spectrum, including a bedridden young woman in England and a man in the States who is almost completely immobile and silent, and (it turns out) the son of a leading researcher in the field, whose desperation to find sources for funding turns out to have quite a personal impetus. For this kind of personal documentary, it’s quite well-made and presents a clear case for further understanding and empathy with those who deal with it — which is, it turns out, a surprisingly large number of people.

Unrest film posterCREDITS
Director Jennifer Brea; Writers Brea and Kim Roberts; Cinematographers Sam Heesen and Christian Laursen; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Monday 6 November 2017.

Sonita (2015)

This week I’m covering documentaries which screened at the Sheffield Doc/Fest in the past (this year’s programme is online, and taking place this month), and the 2016 winner of the Youth Jury Award was this film about an Afghani/Iranian rapper who left to pursue her musical dreams and now finds herself a de facto activist against child weddings.


A sweet and likeable film about a young Afghani woman living in Tehran, Sonita Alizadeh سونیتا علیزاده, whose family want to sell her as a bride but she has different ideas. Specifically of course, as documented by the film crew who are following her, she wants to be a rapper. Along the way she drags the director into her plans and things take a different turn from what we expect. The film gives a strong sense of the intersection of tradition and patriarchal violence, and from a Q&A at the screening afterwards, Sonita’s dreams after the film were of becoming a lawyer and working against child marriage, so that’s pretty great too.

Sonita film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami رخساره قائم مقامی; Cinematographers Behrouz Badrouj بهروز بدروج, Ali Mohammad Ghasemi علی محمد قاسمی, Mohamad Hadadi محمد حدادی, Arastoo Givi ارسطو گیوی, Parviz Arefi, Torben Bernard, Ala Mohseni; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at Ritzy, London, Friday 11 March 2016.

Ouaga Girls (2017)

Following this morning’s review of Even When I Fall, my mini-theme today (within my Sheffield Doc/Fest week) is documentaries that take us to different parts of the world. Although this is of course something that a lot of documentaries do, finding a subject that hasn’t been covered can sometimes be difficult, but it’s fair to say there aren’t many documentaries out there about women’s vocational training centres in Burkina Faso, so it’s great to see inside this one.


The film takes the familiar route of following a small number of people amongst those studying at this Ouagadougou auto mechanics training centre, women who are taking car bodywork lessons to go to work for garages in what is repeatedly referred to as ‘men’s work’. The personalities of the various women all come out slowly, not least because at school they are all largely respectful and quiet (perhaps the situation, or maybe it’s the presence of the camera), but there are some strong words about the importance of this education to them. The film is also made with a fair bit of style of its own, carefully edited and framed well, especially in the introductions near the start. On the whole, it’s a likeable and interesting film about women in an unlikely place.

Ouaga Girls film posterCREDITS
Director Theresa Traoré Dahlberg; Cinematographer Iga Mikler; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Friday 20 October 2017.

Even When I Fall (2017)

One of the major reasons I like to watch documentaries is that they bring me stories from all parts of the world, from all walks of life, and from the perspectives of people whose lives and experiences I will never share and could often never be part of. This film is directed by two British women (from an anthropology background, I gather), but is filmed in Nepal, touching on child trafficking and exploitation but in a way that really benefits from the time the filmmakers spent with their subjects. It’s a real problem with documentaries that the best ones require a huge amount of time and patience to make, whereas ones which are dashed off quickly tend to be insubstantial and misleading. This film is produced by Elhum Shakerifar (Hakawati Films), who has also produced the excellent Of Love & Law and A Syrian Love Story amongst others, and programmes Middle Eastern and North African films at the London Film Festival (quite often providing some of my favourite film experiences at the LFF each year).


Seeing a synopsis of this documentary, I was not expecting very much, but in blending an account of human trafficking of children from poor, rural areas of Nepal into travelling circuses in India, with the story of their rescue and rehabilitation into their own native circus based in Kathmandu, the film ends up being rather lovely. It’s certainly not a combination that one might expect to pay off: earnest accounts of the wonder of the circus arts hardly make for a natural bedfellow with harrowing accounts of what is essentially slavery, you would think. However, there’s an assuredness to the direction and photography that is aided by, as ever, charismatic and watchable lead characters, most notably two women who have grown up in these circuses, and have found a new sense of direction once reunited with their families. Of course, there are difficult questions — most notably, why their parents sold them in the first place — but the women are all united in trying to ensure that this practice does not continue, as well as fighting against the prejudices people have against circus performers (which seem to roughly align with what 19th century Victorians thought about actors).

Even When I Fall film posterCREDITS
Directors Kate McLarnon and Sky Neal; Cinematographer Ben Marshall; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Monday 16 April 2018.

Chavela (aka Chavela Vargas, 2017)

Plenty of documentaries, especially recently, have explored all kinds of facets of lesbian, gay, bi, trans and queer identities, in various areas of life. Documentaries can often bring wider recognition to people and causes which aren’t very familiar to a mainstream audience. One recent film that shines a light on a Latin American performer is Chavela, which screened at the 2017 Sheffield Doc/Fest.


There are documentaries that break moulds and innovate the form, and then there are ones which may take a venerable approach (talking head interviews, archival footage, historical research) but do so in the service of presenting a fascinating and little told story. This is surely one of the latter, and for someone not brought up in the hispanophone world I was entirely unaware of Chavela Vargas, a Costa Rica-born Mexican singer who achieved great fame in both Mexico and Spain for her heartfelt and passionate singing, not to mention her outspoken lesbian identity at a time when (and in a place where) that was much frowned upon. It’s wonderful to both hear from those who knew her, loved her or worked with her, and to see the footage of her performing in the final act of her career which ran from the early-90s to her death in 2012, as she took to the stage again in her seventies and kept performing, unable ever to fully retire.

Chavela film posterCREDITS
Directors Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi; Cinematographers Natalia Cuevas, Gund and Paula Gutiérrez Orio; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Thursday 26 July 2018.

Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin (2018)

As of writing this (and hopefully not for too much longer), I’ve never actually read any of the work of Ursula K. Le Guin, and I feel ashamed at that. More than ever, it’s important to celebrate authors who work in the fantasy and science-fiction genres who deal frankly and positively with difference, specifically characters with fluid gender and sexual identities, characters which cut across class divides and are sympathetic and believable. Le Guin has been doing so since the 1960s, and too many authors with a lot of media cachet have been getting recent media traction with appalling untruths about, for example, transgender people. Difference is still scary and threatening to far too many people, and reading the work of authors like Le Guin is a small way to rectify that.


A straightforward hour-long talking heads documentary about an American fantasy author who died at the age of 88 in January 2018. It dwells most on her upbringing and the work in the 1960s that made her name, and about her own personal growth in encountering feminism and moving from primarily male protagonists to integrate different class and gender perspectives into her stories from the 1970s onwards. As it’s quite short, you get the sense that there’s a lot more that could be covered, and it leans rather heavily on the opinions of David Mitchell and Neil Gaiman, but on the whole this is a fascinating piece. In particular, her speech near the end of her life to the National Book Awards is a reminder that her acuity and social consciousness remained undiminished throughout her life.

Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Arwen Curry; Cinematographer Andrew Black; Length 68 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Saturday 10 November 2018.

What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? (2018)

Another film that seems relevant to recent political and social crises is this documentary from 2018, re-edited in a shorter ‘director’s cut’ the following year (where it also screened at the Sheffield Doc/Fest). I’ve seen critiques of the film from Black critics, a sense of it as being overly aestheticised and a little removed perhaps from the lives and struggles it’s showing, but the director was keen to emphasise the collaborative nature of the work.


The director was presenting a ‘director’s cut’ of this film (at 106 minutes, slightly shorter than the version premiered at Venice last year and shown at the 2018 London Film Festival), and though I can’t compare the two versions, this is a beautiful monochrome-shot film about a few different Black experiences of life in and around New Orleans. At times there’s some of the quietly observed quotidian reality that you get in, say, RaMell Ross’s Hale County This Morning, This Evening, or a hint at the kinds of generational stories in the TV show Treme, not to mention a panoply of images that recall a myriad of great films about the American South, even at times a sense of a staged performance (as during Judy’s literal performance in her bar near the end of the film). However, this feels like a film that’s not quite observational documentary but a sort of collaborative improvisation, in which Minervini (as he was careful to stress in an on-stage Q&A afterwards) wanted to present voices and stories that were not and could never be his own, and to respect them. So all those familiar stories, about Black peoples’ lives and deaths, about trying to move beyond trauma, or sometimes the inability to do so, these are presented in a graceful, economical manner — you’re never far from the trauma, but that doesn’t feel like the totality of experience by any means. Judy in her bar, the Mardi Gras Indians sewing their elaborate costumes while singing, the two boys playing outside and alongside railroad tracks, Judy’s mother doing her washing out the front of her home, even the New Black Panthers organising and handing out meals and water to local homeless people or protesting the deaths of Black men at the hands of police, all of these moments are both filled with joy and hope even while being inflected by countless stories, memories and history, ones spoken about and others unspoken. There are three central groups of characters in this film, but there are hundreds of stories in every sequence I think, and that’s what Minervini is great at capturing.

What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire? film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Roberto Minervini; Cinematographer Diego Romero; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 12 April 2019.

El silencio de otros (The Silence of Others, 2018)

This past week has seen the launch of an online platform for streaming films from the 2020 Sheffield Doc/Fest, which has obviously been unable to go ahead in physical form. It’s one of Britain’s premier film festivals, dedicated to documentary cinema and a key launching pad for films in that genre for a number of years now, and only growing in international significance. In fact, last year I put the 2020 dates in my diary, intending to try and visit in person, which I hope to do again in future. It’s also fair to say that a large number of the films premiered there have fed into local cinema releases, and notably films that are shown at the Bertha DocHouse screen of the Curzon Bloomsbury, one of the only screens (if not the only one) dedicated solely to documentary films, and one of the venues I have most missed these past few months.

So this week I will focus on documentary films, specifically ones which screened at Sheffield or received a premiere at that festival. In 2018, for example, one of the big award winners was the excellent documentary about inner city life (and skateboarding), Minding the Gap, and there were screenings of films I’ve already covered like Hale County This Morning, This Evening and Black Mother. The winner of the 2018 Grand Jury prize was the Spanish film The Silence of Others, which confronts the way that people misremember even recent history, which has been a topic of some news coverage recently, what with our (British) government doubling down on honouring and supporting the statues of slave traders and famous colonialist and racists; there’s a sequence in this documentary in which a city council is frustrated repeatedly in its attempts to try and address its (relatively recent) fascist past, and that is very much a theme running through this entire work. We must not be silent about our history, wherever we live.


Some stories are important to try and remember, and that’s especially the case with Spain under the government of Francisco Franco from the 1930s to his death in 1975, given that the Spanish Parliament’s response to his regime was passing a ‘Pact of Forgetting’ in 1977 that gave amnesty to Franco’s victims but also, importantly, to his allies (many of whom were still in powerful positions in the parliament that passed it). The subsequent calls for justice have been slow to build, and largely blocked by the Spanish judiciary and government due to that Pact, hence this story of a group of people uniting to bring a case in Argentina. The film hears the testimonies of some of the people involved in the case, all of whom were either tortured themselves or had family members assassinated by the Franco regime, as well as presenting contemporary footage (such as exists) and contextualising the long legal battle with a gathering of public support. We also clearly see that there’s still a strong contingent of Franco supporters in power even now, as plenty still show up for his birthday, while people in the street talk about leaving the past untouched, and we see a hatchet-faced cadre of supporters amongst the Madrid city councillors, opposed to renaming streets which honoured him and his generals. There’s clearly still a long way for Spain to go in facing its past, but this documentary shows some of the ways this policy of silence is being challenged.

The Silence of Others film posterCREDITS
Directors Robert Bahar and Almudena Carracedo; Writers Ricardo Acosta, Bahar, Carracedo and Kim Roberts; Cinematographer Carracedo; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Tuesday 19 February 2019.

Two Netflix Films about Mediæval Kings in the British Isles: Outlaw/King (2018) and The King (2019)

Although Robert the Bruce (whose story is rendered in Outlaw/King) and Henry V (of The King) were two historical figures whose lives never overlapped, they did live within a few generations of one another (Henry was born around 60 years after Bruce died), and both lived in what was then a divided island, though part of that was down to the actions of Bruce himself. Neither film can probably claim to be great history — they are more invested in generic tropes of heroism and resistance, while The King isn’t even based on the history but on Shakespeare’s rendering of it some century and a half later — but both illuminate some of the ways that history is used and abused, also adding to that popular idea that Mediæval times were all about grim misery, mud and gore.

Continue reading “Two Netflix Films about Mediæval Kings in the British Isles: Outlaw/King (2018) and The King (2019)”

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).