Criterion Sunday 557: The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)

I do wonder, watching this classic documentary once again, how many figures from history are forgotten or only dimly recalled, people who have had enormous influence in their time. As the filmmaker reflects in one of the extras, you can easily imagine Harvey Milk fading from view, for while his importance at a certain point in San Francisco’s civic history may have been undoubtable, the wider significance of his work could easily have never been properly established. What this film does then is a work of urgent engagement with a public legacy, coming from a sense of injustice — not just in the way that Milk was killed, but in the way his voice took so long to be heard at all and about the easy way in which his killer was treated. But it’s not the story of Dan White that’s of interest here — his brand of neo-conservative Bible-thumping bigotry has been every bit as influential in American politics sadly — but the effervescence and life of Harvey Milk, a man who knew early on what his fate would be (as anyone who’d grown up in American politics of the post-war period surely knew) but forged ahead anyway. He has a great skill with oratory and a belief in what was right, more than can be said for some of his political colleagues who may continue to wield influence in the state of California. It’s a great film to celebrate a life, not just mourn a death, and that’s what it taps into more than anything else.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There is a wealth of documentary material included as extras here, including the film’s premiere at the Castro (although not its first screening, but the first to the local community), introduced by Vito Russo and with speeches from its director, as well as the rather more staid affair of the Oscars where it won the best documentary that year (no mean feat, given the closed way that the Documentary Oscar was for many years selected).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Rob Epstein; Writers Epstein, Carter Wilson and Judith Coburn; Cinematographer Frances Reid; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 30 July 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, June 2000).

Criterion Sunday 491: Z (1969)

This film, made in 1969, is practically a playbook for repressive governments — sponsoring violence, manipulating the media, brazenly lying, evading censure, blaming others — that hasn’t really changed in the intervening years, and may indeed be a useful study guide for anyone thinking of getting into a bit of dictatorship. There are essentially two parts, the story of an opposition leader within the unnamed (but presumably Greece-adjacent) country, and then a judicial investigation being led by Jean-Louis Trintignant’s character (who is a shady background presence in the first part). It’s all put together with a keen sense for suspense and pulls you through its twisting narrative, exposing as if a documentary the lies being perpetrated, while the narrative gives you a little bit of hope that things might work out on the side of justice. You’ll have to watch it to find out whether they do, but it’s well worth watching whatever you think might happen, because it’s gripping in all the best ways for a political thriller.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Costa-Gavras Κωνσταντίνος Γαβράς; Writers Jorge Semprun and Costa-Gavras (based on the novel by Vassilis Vassilikos Βασίλης Βασιλικός); Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Yves Montand, Pierre Dux, Irene Papas Ειρήνη Παππά; Length 127 minutes.

Seen at the Embassy, Wellington, Monday 1 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 449: Missing (1982)

In a way this film by Costa-Gavras is exemplary of a certain strand of political filmmaking that flourished in the 1980s, finding a way into an epochal event through a human rights case involving (white) Americans, to make it more relatable. Interestingly, of course, the Chilean coup in 1973 that led to the death of the young American journalist Charles Horman (played here by John Shea) is so far in the background that Allende and Pinochet are barely even named, and the Chileans we see are just shady military characters with little to distinguish them. Costa-Gavras is very much more interested in focusing on the Americans involved, which makes sense given the help they gave to what was an explicitly anti-leftist and militaristic coup, aligning so well with their destabilising influence across Central and South America in this Cold War era. So we are led to see all these events, the disappearance and death of American journalists, as part of an essentially American story of silencing their own citizens as part of enacting geopolitical change that would favour their own national interests. That said, what I find frustrating about the film is just having to watch Jack Lemmon (playing Charles’s dad Ed) trying to throw his weight around and not understanding his own son’s situation, though it’s all presented as part of a learning curve for him — as someone of a certain age who implicitly trusted his own government finally understanding that he could never trust them again. His character is difficult and has trouble understanding the context, and that can just make him a little bit difficult to watch at times when it’s just variations of him going into rooms and being dismissive of his son’s wife (Sissy Spacek) and friends whenever they speak. Still, it’s a well-intentioned film that did attempt to grapple with some of this geopolitical reality at a time when Reagan had recently been elected.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Costa-Gavras Κώστας Γαβράς; Writers Costa-Gavras and Donald E. Stewart (based on the non-fiction book The Execution of Charles Horman: An American Sacrifice by Thomas Hauser); Cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich; Starring Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, John Shea, Melanie Mayron; Length 122 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 17 July 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, September 2000).

Colectiv (Collective, 2019)

Last week I started a themed week around new(ish) releases I saw in the cinema, but then halfway through the week I got distracted by a new job, and you know, where does all the time go? So I forgot to post for the last few days, meaning I’m going to pick up again this week, starting with a recent Oscar-nominated best documentary film from Romania.


There are a few stories swirling around in this Romanian documentary, like the one it takes its name from, and where it effectively starts: the tragedy that saw the Colectiv nightclub burn down in Bucharest to great loss of life. However, this is probably of least interest to the film (we don’t learn why it happened, nor who was responsible, largely because I imagine the details are fairly banal, and there have been a number of cases of this kind of fire even in recent decades). That the fire led to the fall of the government is also covered in the opening text scrawl. No, this documentary swiftly becomes about why so many died in the aftermath of the fire, even with relatively minor burns compared to some who survived. It’s a story of government corruption around the building, management and supply of hospitals, and while a few individuals lose their jobs, it’s also fairly clear by the end that wider accountability is still to be delivered. After all, the party which was in power during the time of the fire, and whose corruption is at the heart of the allegations, was voted back into power within a year.

Where the early part of the film focuses on the journalistic investigations (by a sports daily, no less, such is the state of the country’s journalism), it later moves to focusing on the youthful new Minister of Health, whose behind-the-scenes efforts to deal with widespread corruption are quickly spun by the state media, and who you feel surprised is even trying to do good by the end, such are the forces arrayed against him. This is all captured by the filmmaker, who focuses on little details to draw out some of the ironies of the situations, contrasting it with a background story about one of the survivors of the fire trying to rebuild her life. It’s hard to respond to the film without a sigh of cynicism about politicians and corruption (it’s hardly the only country to have failed to levy accountability after a disastrous fire caused by lax health or building standards), but it’s heartening (a little bit) to see a few people who do still care about trying to change things, and that’s what I am trying to carry away from this film.

Colectiv (Collective, 2019)CREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Alexander Nanau; Writers Nanau and Antoaneta Opriș; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Sunday 28 March 2021.

Criterion Sunday 373: The Proud Valley (1940) and Native Land (1942)

The director of The Proud Valley (the first film on this disc) — who was a descendent of the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson — died the year after it was released at the remarkably young age of 28, but he shows a sure sense of direction in this work set amongst Welsh miners at the cusp of war. Of course, the star is the African-American expatriate Paul Robeson, by this point no longer particularly welcome back in his home country, and who had already had most of a decade working in Europe to various success. This film escapes the jingoistic colonialism and condescension of Sanders of the River (1935) and is much more in-line with the kind of noble depiction of the Black American that Robeson was far more interested in conveying. Indeed, racism becomes very much a minor issue amongst this group of workers — when they’re down the mines, after all, they’re all coated in coal dust — and the film is about the small town’s attempt to reopen their mine and restore work to the struggling community above all else. In that sense, it has a fair amount of feeling for the struggle of working class people across racial divides that would certainly seem to become rarer in British culture thereafter.

The final film on the set, the American film Native Land, certainly isn’t perfect — it pitches itself somewhat as a documentary about the union activism, its suppression by forces of government and capitalism, and its triumphant resurgence, but intersperses the documentary portions (narrated by Paul Robeson) with re-enactments of incidents in the struggle for union rights. These bits are a little bit stagy, but still valuable and interesting, though certainly I’ve seen persuasive critiques at the overall tone, a sort of patriotic nationalism that ties in the Declaration of Independence to labour struggles — and to be fair I can somewhat understand that impulse to cast the union as a patriotic institution deserving of vigorous defence. It also begs the question of whose land this is, and who exactly is native to it, and while the answer is presumably the honest worker, one does wonder at the lack of nuance around indigenous rights and anti-racist struggles. Still, it’s flying the flag for a progressive agenda, and for the power of the unions to affect our lives in a positive way (which they have historically done and continue to do in many cases), especially against the organising of fascists and their sympathisers, a theme that sadly has not aged.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

The Proud Valley (1940)
Director Pen Tennyson; Writers Fredda Brilliant, Louis Golding, Herbert Marshall; Cinematographers Glen MacWilliams and Roy Kellino; Starring Paul Robeson, Edward Chapman, Simon Lack, Rachel Thomas; Length 76 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Thursday 19 November 2020.

Native Land (1942)
Directors Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand; Writers Hurwitz and Ben Maddow; Cinematographer Strand; Starring Paul Robeson; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Sunday 22 November 2020.

Criterion Sunday 370: The Emperor Jones (1933) and Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979)

The first film on the first disc of Criterion’s Paul Robeson box set is reserved for The Emperor Jones (1933), not Robeson’s earliest work featured on the collection but probably the most famous of his film roles. The acclaim is certainly warranted when it comes to his acting, though to be fair he is given not just a big role (being the title character, Brutus Jones) but a very big character too (shot as if towering above everyone else on the set). Having gained the rare distinction of a job among the white world as a Pullman porter, Jones womanises and gambles his way to serious trouble, and upon escaping finds himself on an island (Haiti, allegorically), where he proclaims himself Emperor. Eugene O’Neill’s source play is what we would nowadays call ‘problematic’ I suspect and certainly leans heavily on a certain depiction of Black people (soulful, primitive, a little bit magical) in a script laden with racial epithets. Still, there’s stuff there that in the context of the early-1930s feels bold, like having him lord it over a white capitalist, even if things don’t end up going his way, and there’s even a showcase for Robeson’s fine singing voice.

The most remarkable thing about the accompanying documentary about Robeson’s life and work, Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979), is that it’s so short. It could be a thirty part mini-series but instead it’s a jaunty 30 minutes, narrated by Sidney Poitier, and touching ever so briefly on so much of his work that there’s no real room for his legacy. We do, however, get a careful delineation of the shifting lyrics to his iconic song “Ol’ Man River” as he sang it repeatedly over the years, as well as his involvement in political struggles not just in the USA but across Europe and the world (though very little engagement with the nature of those political beliefs, aside from the fact that they were enough to warrant him being denied his passport for 10 years). There is certainly room for a longer more detailed work about the man, but this will have to suffice along with his many films.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Sunday 8 November 2020.

The Emperor Jones (1933)
Director Dudley Murphy; Writer DuBose Heyward (based on the play by Eugene O’Neill); Cinematographer Ernest Haller; Starring Paul Robeson, Dudley Digges, Fredi Washington; Length 76 minutes.

Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979)
Director/Writer Saul J. Turell; Length 30 minutes.

Global Cinema 24: Brazil – The Trial (2018)

Brazil is the biggest country I’ve yet covered in this series and it has a long and fruitful cinema history. Indeed, Mubi where I watched this film has been curating a ‘new Brazilian cinema’ strand over the last few months that has featured plenty of equally interesting titles and if I weren’t a little pressed for time this week I’d have featured more of those films in the leadup to this review. I certainly do intend to do a Brazilian themed week before too long. However, as the film I’m featuring today is about modern Brazilian politics, it seemed like the best introduction to this huge country.


Brazilian flagFederative Republic of Brazil (Brasil)
population 210,147,000 | capital Brasília (3.99m) | largest cities São Paulo (21.3m), Rio de Janeiro (12.4m), Belo Horizonte (5.1m), Recife (4m), Brasília | area 8,515,767 km2 | religion Christianity (87%), none (8%) | official language Portuguese (português) | major ethnicity white (47.7%), mixed (43.1%), Black (7.6%) | currency Real (R$) [BRL] | internet .br

The largest South American country is also the world’s fifth largest by area, and sixth largest by population, so needless to say there’s a lot to fit into this paragraph. It borders all other countries on the continent except Ecuador and Chile, with an incredibly diverse geography. The name comes from the Portuguese for Brazilwood (“pau-brasil”), a tree that once grew along the coast, with this part of its name referring to its reddish colour like an ember (from brasa); in the indigenous Guarani language, it is Pindorama, meaning “land of the palm tree”. Evidence of human habitation goes back some 11,000 years, and the earliest pottery found in the west is from the Amazon basin — around 7 million indigenous people lived in the area covered by the modern country by the arrival of the Portuguese, who claimed the land in April 1500. Colonisation began in earnest around 30 years later, and was divided by King John III into 15 autonomous areas before bringing them back together under unified leadership in 1549. There were any number of wars with indigenous people, whose number were added to by the slave trade from sub-Saharan Africa, brought over to work the sugar plantations (slavery continued until 1850). In the early-19th century, Rio de Janeiro hosted the Portuguese royal court for over a decade, unifying the colony with its coloniser across the Atlantic. However, independence was soon after declared on 7 September 1822, resulting in the foundation of the Empire of Brazil, though a series of internal conflicts and political tensions eventually led to its transformation to a republic in 1889, albeit one essentially under military dictatorship. The ensuing century saw a tumultuous push and pull between dictatorship and socialism, with the current trend being back towards authoritarianism. It is a democratic republic with an elected president.

The film industry can be traced back to the late-19th century, though the country’s production didn’t come to prominence until Cinema Novo in the 1960s under directors such as Glauber Rocha and Nelson Pereira dos Santos, with another more commercial peak in the 1990s. There are a number of prominent film festivals and its films continue to be well-regarded by critics.


O processo (The Trial, 2018)

Though I recognise a few of the names, I am by no means acquainted with Brazilian politics. It’s a huge country, with a huge range of experiences, races, class divides and no doubt a range of very specific things that lead to various factions within their political system. This documentary throws you headlong into that without on-screen captions as to who the people we see are, and with only a few intertitles for context, as its first woman President, Dilma Rousseff, faces impeachment for a small number of charges which — depending on your viewpoint, and all of them get voice here — could either be rather minor in the scheme of things and therefore a pretext for a coup, or else evidence of deeper corruption. And aside from Rousseff, a few other major figures (mostly men) are also in the firing line for corruption and criminal charges.

What becomes evident though is that, notwithstanding your familiarity with the specifically Brazilian context, the kinds of political theatre we are accustomed to seeing in all our countries, and the creeping way of the fascist right to turn the electorate against itself, is very familiar. What is also interesting is that aside from Rousseff herself (who is more talked about than actually seen or heard), the impeachment trials and the film itself seems to converge around two other women — though there are no talking heads interviews, so it’s all very much in overheard meetings, brief news clips, press conferences and parliamentary proceedings. These are Janaina Paschoal (a lawyer and prosecutor, subsequently elected as a member of a far right party) and Gleisi Hoffmann, who is in Rousseff’s party and a senator at the time of the trial. Again, without offering overt context, the film allows the viewer to form their own opinion of the various arguments, though Hoffmann feels like a compelling presence at the edges of this show trial.

Anyway, my main point is that though I didn’t know much about Brazil or its politics, this documentary felt compelling and interesting, not just about that country but about democracies, and the propensity for various factions to derail them. I’m not sure that the subsequent election of Jair Bolsonaro allays any of those fears.

The Trial film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Maria Augusta Ramos; Cinematographers Alan Schvarsberg and David Alves Mattos; Length 137 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 10 September 2020.

Criterion Sunday 355: Le mani sulla città (Hands Over the City, 1963)

In a way I’m surprised there haven’t been more films about the decisions that lie behind the construction of the cities most of us (in this country, on this continent, on the planet) live in. After all, the decisions that shape our built environment can be some of the most decisive around our quality of life, what jobs we do, where our aspirations lie, and most of these decisions are ultimately political ones. It doesn’t take a country with as much of a history of political volubility and public corruption as Italy for it to be applicable to the rest of the world, because the decisions about new housing projects are often the most nefarious of deals wherever you live, and so the subject matter of this film has barely aged in the 57 years since it was made.

Of course, watching Hands Over the City you get a little sense of why there aren’t more films like this, because all the major players in this drama look sort of the same — all well-groomed patrician men of a certain age, who all look the same in black-and-white aside perhaps from the way they wear their hear or the glasses they have on their face (and even then, there’s not a great variety). Perhaps the situation may be different now, but not much different really. The men who make these decisions, who hold the power and the money, and decide how we will live are often these men, and this film revolves around one developer (Rod Steiger), also a city councilman, who has access to the levers of government that means decisions on his projects are fast-tracked (“approved in three days!” rages one left-wing council member, played by Carlo Fermariello, explaining that most decisions of this nature come in a timeframe of six months to two years). When his project leads to the collapse of a building in a slum area, killing multiple people, it leads to some intense questioning — but because they’re poor people, it all feels like fairly superficial, gestural politics.

There’s a docudrama element to this, then, because even if the film is fictional, a lot of the scenarios are drawn very much from real life — if you’re willing to look for it, there’s a lot of drama in city planning (as films like Chinatown were only too aware). And so, though it takes a little while to pick out the players from this sea of fancy suits, Rosi’s film about a corrupt real estate developer, retains its power and potency.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Francesco Rosi; Writers Rosi, Raffaelle La Capria and Enzo Forcella; Cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo; Starring Rod Steiger, Carlo Fermariello, Salvo Randone; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 20 September 2020.

الميدان Al Midan (The Square, 2013)

Taking us back a few years to a time when it seemed the world could change for the better. I think the full accounting of the cause and effects of the Arab Spring are probably still quite far away, and this film was made in the ferment of the initial action, at least as it took place in Egypt. It’s a great piece of documentary work, urgent and compelling. Even almost 10 years on, it’s still not clear the direction things have taken, but it’s always useful to show that the people are not entirely without voice in such moments.


There are a lot of documentaries and films about protest (plenty indeed just about the Arab Spring, like the Tunisian film A Revolution in Four Seasons), but The Square — which comes quite soon after the initial events — really seems to capture something of what this means, both in practice, with the immediacy of reportage from sites of revolutionary insurrection and activist struggle, and also in thought. This latter is served by a number of individuals, who perhaps represent a wider cross-section, if not of the full range of society, but of its most reflective participants. Egypt is still working through the legacy of 2011, and the documentary acknowledges that at the end, but the couple of years we see here are pretty compelling.

The Square film posterCREDITS
Director Jehane Noujaim چيهان نچيم; Cinematographers Noujaim, Muhammad Hamdy محمد حمدي, Ahmed Hassan أحمد حسن and Cressida Trew; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Wednesday 7 December 2016.

我們有雨靴 Ngor moon yau yu her (We Have Boots, 2020)

I don’t have a specific theme for this week on my blog, so I’m just continuing to post some reviews from the Sheffield Doc/Fest.


This feels like a particularly urgent documentary, and as such it has a rather scrappy quality to it. There’s a lot of text and a few interviews, but mainly what it thrives on is the first-person footage of the protests, the civil disobedience, that have galvanised pro-democracy campaigners in Hong Kong for the last five or six years (at least). As someone who is far outside this particular conflict, there are a lot of people and details to take in, and it can be difficult to follow it all, but then again maybe a proper accounting of this time would take an epic length multi-part documentary. Even the two or so hours we get here (and I gather there have been several edits; this one has an epilogue which takes it up to May 2020, making it very fresh) ping all over the place, but they have an anger and a focus to it that becomes clear, from the covert colonisation being done by mainland China, to the various autocratic laws announced or sponsored on its behalf through pro-China HK leadership, plus the almost inevitable captions for each person we see announcing how they’ve been cracked down on or jailed or censured for their involvement. And as the ending makes clear, this is all very much just the beginning; protest and democracy is an ongoing process and will unfold for many years yet.

We Have Boots film posterCREDITS
Director Evans Chan 陳耀成; Cinematographers Lai Yick Ho, Mo Ming, Wong Hing Hang, Nero Chan, Jeong Hun Lee; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Monday 6 July 2020.