Global Cinema, Armenia: Armenian Rhapsody (2012)

For all its diminutive size, Armenia has a fairly active film industry, albeit on a smaller scale, perhaps one of the legacies of its Soviet past. Sergei Parajanov was Armenian (albeit born in Georgia) and it has had a number of at least locally well-known filmmakers since. One of my favourite films of recent decades was The Lighthouse (2006) by Maria Saakyan, who sadly died too young at the age of 38. The film I present below isn’t technically Armenian but is a fine introduction to the country, and available on YouTube


Armenian flagRepublic of Armenia (Հայաստան)
population 2,957,000 | capital Yerevan (Երևան) (1.1m) | largest cities Yerevan, Gyumri (122k), Vanadzor (86k), Vagharshapat (47k), Abovyan (43k) | area 29,743 km2 | religion Christianity (Armenian Apostolic Church) | official language Armenian (հայերէն Hayeren) | major ethnicity Armenians (98%) | currency Dram (֏) [AMD] | internet .am

A mostly mountainous, landlocked country, bordering Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iran. The original name Hayk’ (Հայք) traditionally derives from a legendary patriarch who settled in the area of Ararat, but the modern name Hayastan dates back to the Middle Ages, with the Persian suffix -stan. Evidence of human habitation dates back to the Bronze Age (c4000 BCE), including the earliest-dated wine-producing facility. The earliest Armenian geographic entity was established by the Orontid Dynasty (Achaemenid Empire) in the 6th century BCE, and became a kingdom within the Seleucid Empire, then Persian Empire. It went through various dynasties during the Middle Ages, until being conquered by the Mongols, and then divided by the Ottomans. Conflict during and after World War I resulted in the ‘Armenian Genocide’ by Ottoman Turks. Armenia was annexed with its neighbours by the Soviet Union in 1922, becoming its own SSR in 1936, eventually declaring independence on 21 September 1991. There was a conflict with neighbouring Azerbaijan, ending in 1994 but resulting in the contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. It now has a market economy, led by an elected President and Prime Minister.

Cinema in the country was established by the Soviets in 1923, though there are earlier films with an Armenian subject. The Armenfilm studio was established shortly after in 1924. In modern times, two or three feature films and a number of documentaries are produced each year, with the most notable director being Sergei Parajanov (who worked during the Soviet era, most famously on The Colour of Pomegranates). The most famous international director of Armenian ethnicity is Atom Egoyan (although he was born in Cairo and lives and works in Canada).


Rapsódia Armênia (Armenian Rhapsody aka Հայկական ռապսոդիա, 2012)

This film, which calls itself an “Armenian Rhapsody” isn’t actually Armenian it turns out, but rather a Brazilian film made by a trio of people with Armenian ancestry (or so I’m guessing from their surnames). However, given that I imagine most people don’t know very much about Armenia, it’s a fairly pleasant ride. Images of people flash up over the credits, and we get to see a few of their lives in a bit more detail: a likeable young couple getting married; an old man talking about the pitfalls of Communism in front of a victorious statue; another chap at home talking about the Armenian Genocide (which is officially recognised by Uruguay, he exclaims); and a chap with a glorious moustache he grows in recognition of tradition (for facial hair looms large). It’s not a revelatory work, but a pleasant stroll through various parts of Armenia, and a likeable introduction to the country.

Armenian Rhapsody film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Cassiana Der Haroutiounian, Cesar Gananian and Gary Gananian; Cinematographers Der Haroutiounian and Gary Gananian; Length 63 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Wednesday 1 July 2020.

Shut Up Sona (2019)

Another film which premiered in the Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects online streaming this past month is this one about an Indian singer confronting sexism and prejudice. It’s a forthright film about an outspoken woman, and it documents what appears to be an ongoing struggle.


India is, of course, a huge country, and with that huge population comes an equally diverse range of viewpoints when it comes to women in the media. Or perhaps, it’s not so diverse, since it seems as if patriarchy continues to hold sway. We see the titular character (Sona Mohapatra), a singer in Hindi, often adapting songs from other religious traditions (most notably, Sufism), confront those who would marginalise her. She’s not by any means poor, and is married to a successful producer of Bollywood music, but the film shows her forthrightness in attacking those who would deny women (like her) access to big stages and national prominence. We see her reading out messages from supporters on Instagram alongside e-mails from clerics attacking her, and quotes flash up on-screen from politicians leading the fight against immorality (which in the case of Sona appears to be: shows a bit too much cleavage in her videos). Her outspoken nature seem to get her naturally into trouble, and there are hints towards some #MeToo fights she’s had online which (presumably for legal reasons) aren’t given much time here, but she’s clearly not going to be quiet and that seems like a good thing for society.

Shut Up Sona film posterCREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Deepti Gupta; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Wednesday 17 June 2020.

A Suitable Girl (2017)

In looking at Indian cinema and society, a number of topics come up quite frequently, particularly that of arranged marriage, which can certainly seem problematic but is also an ingrained part of society and not always quite how Western audiences want to judge it. This documentary is fairly balanced in the way it approaches the subject, taking in three different subjects, at different stages in their path to marriage.


As a documentary about marriage, and thus about women’s lives, in India, this comes across as the cinematic equivalent of a long sigh. It’s not an angry film, it’s not even necessarily against the practice of arranged marriage, it just looks at the stories of three women and the way they feel about marriage and how they expect to continue their lives. All three are intelligent, motivated, and pretty, but each have different difficulties. One is marrying, which happens near the start of the film, meaning we then see how that plays out for her (cooking, domesticity, raising a child but not ‘allowed’ to work); the others are trying to make a path for themselves, and thus get married towards the end of the film. There’s a sense in which the music for those climactic marriage scenes is a little too overdetermined (it comes over like a feel-good commercial) when the rest of the film makes it clear that they have all made sacrifices and compromises. One of them isn’t willing to sacrifice her work and so she marries a man who is pretty blasé about the whole concept, basically admitting he’s just going through with it for his family, and though they seem happy together, it’s all very odd at times. Which means, as a film about the practice of Indian marriages, it’s interesting and fairly balanced.

A Suitable Girl film posterCREDITS
Directors Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra; Writers Khurana, Mundhra and Jennifer Tiexiera; Cinematographers Naiti Gámez, Shivani Khattar and André de Alencar Lyon; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Friday 2 March 2018.

XXY (2007)

Several other Argentinian films deal with gender identity issues, whether The Last Summer of La Boyita (2009) or Puenzo’s other work like The Fish Child (2009). The review here is of her earlier film, also dealing with an intersex person, and I think it’s pretty subtle and interesting, though undoubtedly it’s worth making a content note that there is a fair amount of prejudice the lead character has to overcome, as so often in this genre.


I like this coming of age story about Alex (Inés Efron), a young intersex woman — or at least that’s the identity she has chosen. It has a lyrical and gentle quality to it, although clearly not all the events in the film are in any way gentle — indeed, there are some really flagrantly nasty encounters, but on the whole they don’t define the character’s story or the way the film presents itself. But aside from Alex herself, it’s also about the family and people around her, primarily her relationship with her father (Ricardo Darín), and it puts the focus on Alex’s choice of identity, and the difficulty she has in doing that at what is already a trying time of life. I’d say it takes the genetic matter that its title alludes to, and makes it into a rounded, human story.

XXY film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lucía Puenzo; Cinematographer Natasha Braier; Starring Inés Efron, Ricardo Darín, Valeria Bertuccelli; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 3 March 2018.

Orione (2017)

Moving to a rather more obscure Argentine film, a first feature by a young director, which is a documentary but a rather experimental one in form, dealing with the idea of a life and interrogating some of the ways that this person’s life is framed by different voices and authorities.


A strange open-ended documentary about a young man who was shot by the police in a poor suburb of Buenos Aires, this marshals an array of footage — interviews with the mother, police dashboard cameras, dead bodies in a morgue, TV, home video — to present the sense of a place and the idea of a life. The dead young man was a criminal, but he was also his mother’s son, the father to his own child, and a person who had dreams and an upbringing, and part of what the documentary does is just to expand the range of the usual crime procedural documentary to be more about the victim’s entire life, about his surroundings and how he came to be. The interview with the mother is in voiceover as she makes an elaborate birthday cake, again framing the sound of witnesses with the ongoing events of lived experience, and that’s what I take from this film.

Orione film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Toia Bonino; Length 65 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 25 November 2018.

Hail Satan? (2019)

I’ve been featuring films shown at Sheffield Doc/Fest on my blog this week, as the festival’s online 2020 edition is currently live. The last edition premiered a number of high-profile documentaries for UK audiences, including the Doc/Audience Award winner For Sama and the Tim Hetherington Award winner One Child Nation, amongst others. A film which gained a cinematic release fairly swiftly after the festival and which takes a different tonal approach to serious societal issues is this one, ostensibly about Satanic practice in the United States (or at least, one branch of it), but actually about civil liberties, a wider discussion that’s always relevant.


This is an amusing documentary that doesn’t take itself too seriously, largely because it’s about a movement that likewise isn’t very serious — at least, not about Satanism itself (ironically enough). Really it’s about raising social consciousness for issues of real freedom (of abortion rights, against transphobia, and of course the rights to religious freedom that require the separation of church and state), and so mostly frequently we see the Satanists protesting outside government buildings trying to protect and enshrine rights that go far beyond Satanism per se. While the film likely doesn’t reflect the variety of Satanic religious practice (I’m sure at least some of it is undertaken earnestly), it’s a rare work that deals with the happier, more productive end of trolling for a change.

Hail Satan? film posterCREDITS
Director Penny Lane; Cinematographer Naiti Gámez; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Sunday 25 August 2019.

Unlocking the Cage (2016)

In the subsection of crusading documentaries bringing attention to a particular issue, this one dealing with animal rights — and specifically the legal attempt to claim them as legal persons (which is, in the States, a legal right that is also claimed by companies, I believe) — is an interesting one, which intersects with certain trends right now. It also exemplifies the place that any documentary festival has for the latest work by longstanding creators in the genre. That said, it’s a fairly minor final film from one of the great 20th century documentarians (Donn Pennebaker), who died in 2019, and there are also troubling aspects to some of the legal arguments in light of this particular historical juncture (the review below was written in 2016 when I saw the film).


This is a solidly made documentary (as you’d expect from the talent) about the issue of animal rights. It’s lovely that people are out there trying to make a difference on this and given my own (vegan) dietary choices, I’m certainly on-side with their struggle. However, it never really convinces me that the particular legal path they’re going down is the best avenue. Still, any attempt to help animals, even arguing for their “personhood”, is a good cause, and who knows, maybe we’ll all look back in 50 years and wonder that such rights ever needed fighting for. But for now, I do strongly wonder if slavery analogies are the most tactful in this respect.

Unlocking the Cage film posterCREDITS
Directors Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker; Cinematographer Hegedus; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Thursday 16 June 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.

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.

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.