Seekers (2020)

Among the films at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest online programme, there seemed to be a particular focus on indigenous voices and stories, whether Brazilian tribal people or the Native Americans at the heart of this documentary. It’s by a French director, so it’s an outsider’s perspective, but it’s still a beautiful and interesting film about different ways of living in an essentially white supremacist society.


The start and end of this documentary presents archival footage of Native Americans and the context of their modern existence at the hands of colonial interlopers, being forced into pedagogical systems that proclaim a “civilising” influence, or clashing against forces of the state protecting white supremacy. In some ways, I’d have been interested to see a film about that, but director Aurore Vullierme is an outsider (not unlike Chloé Zhao with her wonderful features set amongst Native Americans) and her story focuses on one man, who has just lost a local election. It’s a little unclear why exactly he’s the focus, and the sense you get as the film unfolds is somewhat elegiac, of a man who is passing down the baton of fighting for rights and to uphold the hopes of their nation to his children, as he’s pushed out by what is assumed to be corrupt forces. But really this is just a sort of hang-out documentary, giving a sense of his life and that of the community he is a part of, and on that level it’s engaging and likeable, even if it feels a little meandering at times.

Seekers film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Aurore Vullierme; Cinematographer Lucile Mercier; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Saturday 27 June 2020.

Chamissos Schatten (Chamisso’s Shadow, 2016)

Ulrike Ottinger is a filmmaker who came out of the 1970’s New German Cinema, making distinctive and odd films like Madame X and Ticket of No Return, before moving on to film a number of works in Mongolia and the furthest east, where she has shown a huge amount of interest in ethnography. This film fits in with that, and while it is in a sense a travelogue, it’s also very much a film about the way that history is latent in the present cultures of the Bering Sea, and the continuum of practices since the 18th century (when some of the texts she reads over these images are taken from). History, then, is indivisible from present-day life, and undoubtedly will continue to be for many generations.


An epic ethnographic documentary in four parts, this covers the cultures and people living around the Bering Sea, both on the Alaskan and Russian sides. As you might expect from the running length it does so in some detail, and as suggested by the title, it also links in historical perspectives. Specifically these come in the form of texts written by naturalist Georg Steller (who accompanied Bering on his exploits), then a century later by Adelbert von Chamisso, a poet and botanist, as well as a little bit from James Cook. However, it’s director Ulrike Ottinger’s voice and cinematic style which dominates the film, though in a respectful way, observing and allowing the people of the region to move about their lives and tell stories when they feel compelled.

It’s difficult to sum it all up in a short review, but the sense I got was of a continuity between Steller in the 18th century and the modern scenes, as a lot of the same practices and customs take place that he described, even if political changes have meant movements of the populations and the closure of the borders between the two nations (which come closest at the top of the world, between the Big and Little Diomede Islands, between which also runs the International Date Line). A lot of the shots of the expanse of this wilderness are breathtaking, but it’s in the simple details too that the film shines, in just pointing the camera at the people, and if some of the sequences seem too long for comfort (some hunters skinning and cutting up a seal), others you feel could go on for an entire chapter (the indigenous people demonstrating their dances was a particular highlight).

Chamisso's Shadow film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Ulrike Ottinger (based on texts by Adelbert von Chamisso and Georg Steller); Length 720 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 24 May 2020.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (2019)

Hello and belated greetings to a new week. I got back from holiday and had my first day at work yesterday (Monday) so I failed to put a post up. Now I’m working from home, and may be for a while. This week’s theme is ‘films available on Netflix’ (and probably all directed by women). Maybe in future weeks I will cover other online streaming services. “But why now?” I hear you ask. “Why would you do a themed week about films available to watch online?” Well, I shall leave that for you to guess. I’m going to start with one of the most impressive little indie films from the last year, with a resonant title.


This isn’t a particularly showy film, though it does some things that other films make a big deal about. For a start, it’s shot like a Dardenne brothers film, in these long sinuous handheld shots, moving with people almost continuously, with very few perceptible cuts. However, the subject matter isn’t particularly aggrandising, as instead it deals with the aftermath of domestic violence, about one (professional, middle-class) woman, Aila (played by one of the directors, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers), helping out Rosie (Violet Nelson), a poorer, pregnant woman she finds standing barefoot in the rain with a bruised face. Both are of First Nations origins, although that doesn’t necessarily help them get along — class seems to be the more evident dividing line, and Rosie finds it difficult to feel comfortable in the situation. The film is about trying to find some truth in these circumstances, of how difficult it is for those who are abused to accept help, and how difficult it is for those who want to give it, to accept that it may not always be wanted. The film journeys into a lot of difficult emotional terrain, and I think it’s a credit to the film that nothing is resolved easily. However, there’s a grace to it, and a sustaining power of just witnessing peoples’ lives and perhaps learning what it is to be helpful in such circumstances.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn; Cinematographer Norm Li; Starring Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Violet Nelson; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Sunday 1 December 2019.

Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015)

BFI London Film Festival This film was presented at the London Film Festival, with no introduction or Q&A.


It strikes me that I’ve been a bit withering about filmmakers taking inspiration from Terrence Malick over the years as indicative of some kind of creative rut, but there are ways to do it well (generally, ditch the poetic voiceover), and it seems to me that Songs My Brothers Taught Me is both its own film and also channels the best of Malick — which is to say the gorgeous cinematography which presents characters in a close relationship to a spectacular natural world. The drama itself focuses on the residents of a Native American reservation in South Dakota, where alcohol is banned but problems still persist. Most of the characters have the same names as the actors, suggesting perhaps that a lot of them are not indeed trained as such, and so there’s a natural edge to John Reddy’s laconic performance as lead character Johnny Winters (some of the best films about teenagers are at their strongest when their characters say less rather than more). His father has just died, and in coming together for the funeral you get the sense of the many connections within the reservation, as it turns out Johnny and his little sister Jashaun (JaShaun St. John) are only two of 25 or so siblings from multiple different mothers. Johnny is caught up in a bit of illicit alcohol trafficking, and smokes plenty of pot, but really he’s just a normal kid trying to make the best of bleak opportunities. The narrative proceeds in fragments and ellipses, as Johnny decides to leave for the West Coast to join his girlfriend, but the drama is largely in creating a thumbnail portrait of the reservation, from the prison where his brother lives, to his mother’s hard-fought struggle for family stability, to the ex-cons trying to make a living selling by the roadside (with whom Jashaun strikes up an unlikely but sweet friendship), to the school where in one memorable scene students struggle to imagine their futures while petting a variety of dangerous-looking animals. However you respond to the film’s slow-building atmosphere, there’s a lot to like in this.

Songs My Brothers Taught Me film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Chloé Zhao 趙婷; Cinematographer Joshua James Richards; Starring John Reddy, JaShaun St. John; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Saturday 17 October 2015.

The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

This series is inspired by the Movie Lottery blog, whose author is picking DVD titles from a hat in order to decide which films to watch. I’ve selected another one from the hat to watch and present my review below.


I’m not sure that I ever saw this film at the cinema, but ever since I first saw it so many years ago, probably on VHS, it’s a film to which I’ve constantly returned. It’s not necessarily the period setting and the many historical details that get me, though I concede these are well co-ordinated, it’s that The Last of the Mohicans is a shameless (and why feel shame?), epic romantic melodrama that pulls all the right strings in me. Call it manipulative, but in the best way. So having picked this as a random film to watch, I shall try to do a little bit of justice to how I feel about it. The one thing I won’t be doing is comparing it to the source novel, for I’ve never read it and I may never get round to it: the space in my life reserved for caring about Uncas and Chingachgook and Nathaniel Hawkeye and Cora Munro is amply sated by re-watching this film, and by now I’d probably just assess the novel negatively in comparison.

When the film came out, I seem to recall it being a matter of wide discussion how much effort it — and particularly its lead actor, Daniel Day-Lewis — had gone to in researching the historical details. The usual stories that accompany your ‘method’ actors. Perhaps some of it was true, perhaps some of it was just feeding the legend. As it happens, I’m not a paid-up member of the cult of Mr Day-Lewis, which seems to bear similarity to that around Meryl Streep. He’s still a star actor, and however deep he goes into a role, he’s always that famous actor playing that famous role. Here, as Hawkeye, he is lanky and pale, an awkward misfit sticking out from his co-stars because he’s Daniel Day-Lewis, but that works perfectly for the character, who is not comfortably part of any culture.

Around him is marshalled all the pomp and brutality of the Seven Years’ War — surely one of the first truly ‘world wars’ — here fought between French and English on American soil, recruiting Native Americans of various tribes to each side’s cause. But pre-dating independence, there is no real patriotic side to support, so the story cannily focuses on Nathaniel ‘Hawkeye’ and his fellow poor frontiersfolk. Hawkeye, having been brought up by a Mohican father, Chingachgook (played by Russell Means), limns the divide between the two largely antagonistic cultures, and suffers recriminations from both sides. He is eyed suspiciously by the Huron when he goes to make peace with Magua, just as he is treated with barely-disguised condescension by Colonel Munro on the English side. Nevertheless, he prevails because his calling is always a greater one: the love he feels towards Colonel Munro’s daughter Cora (played by Madeleine Stowe), the duty of care towards his father and brother Uncas, his sparring with the petulant Major Duncan Hayward (Steven Waddington) — who is also in love with Cora — and his enmity towards the traitorous Magua (Wes Studi), whose object is the obliteration of the Munro family. All the film’s emotions are passionately felt and rousingly marshalled.

This is the end to which all of director Michael Mann’s skill is put, ensuring the film doesn’t slow down for anything so banal as mere exposition. Dialogues are never spoken between two characters when they can be declaimed. It’s not so much the exchange of facts as deeply-held feelings that are the subject of the characters’ interactions. What we do glean about the conflict is not spelled out and the film is all the better for that. For example, there’s an early role for Jared Harris on horseback imperiously demanding the subjection of the frontier dwellers to the English cause, and though he is a character set up so as to be openly mocked by Nathaniel, we get a sense of what’s at stake for the settlers. Or else there’s General Webb recounting the tactical situation on the front lines as part of an extended personal joke with his second-in-command at the expense of French sybaritic indolence. When the film does slow down for a quiet moment, the air is pregnant with the conflicts to come — a coach crossing a bridge between two warring worlds, a broken branch on the trail that leads to Hawkeye’s kidnapped sweetheart, or the water lapping listlessly at the crest of a massive waterfall (this latter moment being the least ‘realistic’, intercut as it is with stock footage of a roaring crescendo of water clearly not in the same space).

The chief co-conspirator to the film’s rousing romance is not so much the actors (though they are all excellent) as the musical soundtrack, composed largely by Trevor Jones with help from Randy Edelman. The string-laden theme takes its influences from traditional folk music, and in fact moves more purely into this idiom at the most heightened moments, taking on a urgent percussive quality, whenever Nathaniel is pursuing some perilous adventure — which means it’s heard often, particularly in the last half-hour of the film. The strings are yearning and evocative but never quite descend to gloopy sentimentality, even when the staging most suggests this quality — Nathaniel and Cora embracing one another in profile against the sunrise, for example.

The film is filled with excesses of this kind, little flourishes of pure melodrama and Boy’s Own adventure heroics. It’s against this background that it needs to be assessed, not as a naturalistic depiction of 18th century combat (though there is that) or the difficulty of living on the frontiers of such a dangerously young country (and that’s there too). I could affect ironic distance, but the film works too hard to break it down. It’s the kind of film you either wholeheartedly and passionately embrace, or you laugh off as inconsequential fluff. I trust, though, that I’ve made my own position clear.

CREDITS
Director Michael Mann; Writers Mann and Christopher Crowe (based on the novel by James Fenimore Cooper); Cinematographer Dante Spinotti; Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeleine Stowe, Russell Means, Wes Studi, Steven Waddington; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Sunday 8 August 2013 (and on plenty of occasions previously).