With this review, I’m returning to two theme weeks, primarily my one focusing on Arab cinema, because this is a documentary filmed in Syria during its (ongoing) Civil War. However, it’s also partly a recent British film directed by a woman, due to its funding and Al-Kateab’s work for British news media. It’s certainly a striking and urgent piece of filmmaking.
There have been a number of documentaries in recent years about refugees, especially as these have impacted Europe, but relatively few films about where these refugees come from (though The Day I Lost My Shadow springs to mind). I imagine this is largely because there hasn’t been persuasive footage of the situations in the kinds of poor, war-stricken countries that generate so many refugees — and documentaries thrive on nothing so much as imagery — but this film has plenty of that. It’s a first-person narration dedicated to the filmmaker’s newborn daughter, born to shelling and constant blood and destruction in the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo, where her husband (Sama’s father) is one of the city’s leading doctors, mainly because he’s one of the few still there helping to run a hospital. It’s not, needless to say, a happy scene and you may be fairly warned that there is a significant amount of footage of dead and dying people, and particularly children — because Assad’s civil war, backed by the Russian planes we see involved in bombing runs, is not one without a lot of human casualty. Amongst the carnage there are these little stories of hope, a baby cut from his mother who miraculously survives, or indeed the story of the title character, young Sama — and one gets the sense that without stories such as these, the misery and death would probably be unbearable. It’s all very heartfelt stuff, and wrenching too.
Directors Waad Al-Kateab وعد الخطيب and Edward Watts; Cinematographer Al-Kateab; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Tuesday 17 September 2019.
The records I keep show that I’ve seen this before, but I don’t remember anything about it (admittedly, it was 17 years ago). However, I don’t think that’s from any inherent lack in the storytelling: it presents a tale of a woman being hounded by the police and the press for her possible complicity in a terrorist’s actions from little more than meeting him at a party and sleeping with him. It hardly seems to have aged in 40 years in the ways that women are so often made to publicly feel shame for the act of desire and for events which continue to saturate our headlines, so in that sense it remains very much topical. The heavier-handed thread is about abuses committed in the name of journalism by an out-of-control yellow press intent merely on splashy, exploitative stories that sell papers; this also has hardly aged but the way the film presents it can be a little on the nose, especially in the hypocritical words that form the epilogue. I suspect instead that my absence of memory of seeing this film is perhaps more a stylistic one: it’s shot well, but feels a little prosaic in its cutting, something of that socialist realism of the 70s coming through. And perhaps that’s not itself a failing, really. Like other Margarethe von Trotta works I’ve seen it’s almost too self-effacing stylistically, and deserves greater praise.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta (based on the novel by Heinrich Böll); Cinematographer Jost Vacano; Starring Angela Winkler, Mario Adorf, Dieter Laser, Jürgen Prochnow; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, August 2000 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 29 October 2017).
I can’t really imagine anyone else adapting this work, and what Gilliam does feels about as faithful as one is likely to get to the tone of Thompson’s novel: it’s a constant barrage of surreal, warped visions of drug-addled psychedelia shading over endlessly into the bleak darkness of the American Vietnam War-era psyche. And yet it’s so exhausting to watch, so unrelentingly ‘gonzo’ in its approach. Surely this is the genesis for the rest of Depp’s later career, as his director makes no effort to rein in Depp’s absurdist tics whatsoever (he probably demanded more), and so his Thompson/Raoul Duke is bouncing off the walls — apt for the character no doubt, but as I say, tiring to watch. Which probably makes this film adaptation some sort of masterpiece, maybe even Gilliam’s best work (he’s certainly not done anything since that, to me, matches it), but it’s also a weary, weary descent into a very specifically American madness.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Terry Gilliam; Writers Gilliam, Tony Grisoni, Alex Cox and Tod Davies (based on the novel by Hunter S. Thompson); Cinematographer Nicola Pecorini; Starring Johnny Depp, Benicio del Toro; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at Rialto, Wellington, Saturday 3 October 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 15 October 2017).
In my head I had this in much the same category as the recent The Big Short, in the sense of being a largely-beige awards-baiting torn-from-the-headlines dude-centric drama, and it is those things. But Spotlight‘s real interest is in people’s power (specifically via journalism) to make a positive change in a society overrun by corrupt institutions, where that other film is about men self-interestedly taking advantage of corrupt institutions. The institution in Spotlight is the Catholic Church, and the allegations of child sexual abuse against it — a big story at the time (and since then), and one that was particularly noticeable in a largely Catholic community like Boston. The corruption that allowed the abuse to be covered up was endemic within the city, reaching the courts, the police and, indeed, the Boston Globe newspaper itself, which only upon the arrival in 2001 of new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) started to take an interest in the case once again. It’s the investigative journalism of the Spotlight team (led by Michael Keaton’s Robbie) which is the film’s focus and it does a good job in getting across some of the painstaking research and journalistic legwork involved in putting together a story such as this, including the long period of months it takes. Along the way we get to see the backstage wrangling amongst the team (Mark Ruffalo’s reporter Mike is the one with the meatiest role), along with their dealings with lawyers (such as Stanley Tucci’s overworked attorney, rightly sceptical of the newspaper’s intentions) and with judges, while operating in secrecy to both hide the story from the church itself (which is seen pressuring those in power to shut it down) and from other papers. Naturally some of the timeline is rather telescoped (particularly the months after September 2011), but it’s a movie that avoids grandstanding speeches, preferring also to downplay any filmmaking tricksiness to put across a polished if visually unspectacular story of a group of people just trying to get something done. At that task, like the journalists it depicts, the film excels.
Director Tom McCarthy; Writers McCarthy and Josh Singer; Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi 高柳雅暢; Starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, Liev Schreiber; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Sunday 14 February 2016.
There’s a slightly muckraking angle to the title which might be more suited to a tabloid, but for all its Nazi referencing (which turns out to be a relatively minor part of the tale), this is a story more about the power of the press at its best, hence the mention of Harold Evans, the key figure around whom the documentary is crafted. He’s the former editor of the Sunday Times newspaper — before one R. Murdoch bought it up, the film is keen to note — and a leading proponent of the kind of investigative journalism which is sorely missed these days as a means to hold the powerful to account. The documentary proceeds in a straightforward manner, using talking heads interviews with some of the key players, as well as archival documents and video footage, to set out its tale of, first, the creation and marketing of the drug Thalidomide by the now-defunct Distillers Group and, secondly, its disastrous physical effects on those exposed to it, particularly the children of pregnant women (the latter group targeted by the advertising). Despite clear evidence of these side effects, the drug continued to be promoted for several years, and then when it was withdrawn, the story of its effects was swiftly buried, largely due to the prohibitive effects of the UK’s libel laws. It wasn’t for some decades until Evans and his team started to expose the scandal, after changes in law and some very carefully-worded campaigning that led to questions in Parliament and therefore made the exposé legally more feasible. The film really does give a sense of the labyrinthine bureaucratic complications to simply reporting the facts, and that aspect of it feels like the kind of story that hasn’t moved on hugely in the intervening years; governments and corporations still regularly collude to protect their interests, and a strong free press is still urgently required to uncover these issues.
Directors David Morris and Jacqui Morris; Cinematographer Clive Booth; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Wednesday 3 February 2016.
The rise of the surveillance state has been a fertile area for films in recent years, following Wikileaks revelations and, more potently, the cache of information provided by Edward Snowden. This was most memorably covered in Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour, and many of the crew for that (including Poitras as producer) are involved with this documentary looking back at an important historical precedent. Of course, as we’ve seen in plenty of paranoid thrillers of that era, the 1970s — riven particularly by opposition to the unpopular war in Vietnam — was another great time for questioning the liberties taken by the government, and the surveillance that was done back then was similar in certain aspects to intelligence programmes relaunched after 9/11. Perhaps the one with the most lasting fame was COINTELPRO (for Counter-Intelligence Programme), involving the systematic undermining of largely political targets by the FBI in ways that were entirely illegal. As 1971 makes clear, the revelation of this programme was largely due to the break-in to a small FBI office by a group of anti-war protestors in 1971, who for the first time appear on camera to tell their story. What’s affecting about it is that all of those involved are now in their 60s, with respectable jobs and families, who were acting out of disgust at the ways the US government was operating in the 1970s. In these reflective interviews, some of the participants waver in their youthful beliefs, but one couple at the centre of the break-in were very conscious of putting their whole family in jeopardy, and this comes to be the emotional core of the film in a way. At the same time, all the information which they revealed about the FBI’s operations of the time (still an organisation run by the feared J. Edgar Hoover) remains fascinating as an archival glimpse into fairly recent history.
Director Johanna Hamilton; Writers Hamilton and Gabriel Rhodes; Cinematographers Andreas Burgess and Kirsten Johnson; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Sunday 14 June 2015.
The revelations last year by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden made a lot of waves — at least in the kinds of newspapers I read, particularly The Guardian, who were the ones to first report on the story — so it’s fascinating now to see a documentary account of how that came about. The revelations tie in to one of the great stories of our time, which is the way that governments increasingly use their citizens’ reliance on the internet to track them and spy on them, without any safeguards or oversight, so this documentary is not just torn from the headlines but itself a part of them. After all, director Laura Poitras was one of the people whom Snowden first contacted, and it was through her that lawyer and journalist Glenn Greenwald came into the picture. Of course, all of them now live outside the United States, for reasons that become fairly obvious, given the abuse of state powers to crack down on information that it is the public’s right to know about (Snowden is charged under a 100-year-old espionage law enacted during wartime that gives him no effective legal rebuttal). Poitras’s resulting documentary is largely based around their first meetings in an anonymous Hong Kong hotel room, where the strategy for reporting the story is formed, as she and Greenwald learn about their source. This could be a limitation, but even in this restricted setting (and partially because of it), there’s plenty of nailbiting drama to be had, as mysterious phone calls and fire alarms puncture their discussions. There’s contextualising footage too from various political hearings and activist meetings (not to mention a brief appearance from a certain Australian also on the run from authorities, for rather different reasons), but it’s Snowden and his revelations which are very much at the heart of this story. It makes for a fascinating account of our relationship to our own governments and to our online presence, even if the participants’ clearly idealistic beliefs in the power of an open internet can (I feel) sometimes be tested in practice by some of the opinion on offer out there. Still, even the ill-formed opinion of anonymous internet bullies is as nothing compared to the activities of the NSA and the UK’s GCHQ, and this documentary provides a welcome warning about the dangers of unchecked state aggression, wherever it exists and however it is cloaked.
Director Laura Poitras; Cinematographers Kirsten Johnson, Katy Scoggin and Trevor Paglen; Starring Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 4 November 2014.