One filmmaker who has consistently engaged with (usually revolutionary) history is the Haitian Raoul Peck. Many of his films deal with the turbulent times of his home country, a country which has suffered no small amount of turbulence over the last fifty years, as testified by the five-film French DVD box set of his Haitian films (one of which is The Man by the Shore reviewed below). Elsewhere he has turned his attention to thinkers like the American James Baldwin (in the documentary I Am Not Your Negro), to leader Patrice Lumumba (of what was then called the Republic of the Congo, later Zaire and now the DRC, subject of a 1992 documentary as well as the biopic below), and of course to a formative period in the life of Karl Marx.
Taking a rather more abstract approach towards the theme of resisting demagogues is this film by the directing partnership of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, whose films have increasingly illustrated a certain high modernist style in the cinema, one that is almost architectural, especially given the unmoving statuary of their actors (though that at least seems earned given this film’s origins in ancient Greek drama). It also features one of their typically unwieldy titles, which is far more about explaining the origins of the text as evoking any particular feeling. At some point, I need to devote some proper space to the way that my own feelings towards Straub-Huillet’s films has progressed over the years (sometimes they bore me, sometimes I love them, and I think most of that is in me, as their own gaze seems almost sublimely disinterested in how anyone might feel). For more context about their work, Pedro Costa made an excellent documentary called Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (2001). This film, Antigone, is currently on Mubi, though leaving very soon I believe.
I’ve seen a number of Straub/Huillet films, and I find myself constantly on the cusp of really “getting” their work. By this period of their output, certainly, they had pared down their dramaturgy to having their actors stand and emote in particular ways in a particular setting, often not looking at one another, often unmoving, sometimes just looking at the text, and it certainly has a peculiar affect. Here they take a Brechtian update on Sophocles play, but stage their actors in ancient Greek ruins, bringing it somehow back to the original in a way. There is perhaps less artifice in the staging (in terms of sets), but the ruins and the togas and the statuesque poses bring their own form of reinvention to the text. I feel I would have got a lot more out of this (and it’s a feeling I have with a lot of Straub/Huillet’s work) if I had been familiar with the original play better, but through the staging and editing and the excellent declamatory acting, it becomes clear what’s going on, and it’s a universal theme as resonant today, right now in our world of demagogues and oligarchs, as it was when it was written, of a powerful ruler who loses all those around him whom he loves because of a hubris that slights the gods (the refusal to bury a fallen leader). Even when I felt the text going over my head, there was still a solid, silent power in the staging, almost a purity that carries the film through.
Directors/Writers Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub (based on the play Antigone by Bertolt Brecht, itself adapted from Friedrich Hölderlin’s translation of the play Ἀντιγόνη by Sophocles Σοφοκλῆς); Cinematographer William Lubtchansky; Starring Astrid Ofner, Werner Rehm; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Wednesday 27 May 2020.
Politics is a mess these days. Quite aside from the challenges of global pandemics, it feels like there has been wave after wave of populist demagogues taking control of parliaments around the world, not least in the United States. In such fractious times, it’s good to be reminded that politics isn’t just for the scions of wealthy families to dabble in social engineering and disaster capitalism, and that at its best it’s about those with a vision and passion for the people they live with to represent those people, and to try and make positive changes to people’s lives. It’s difficult to remember a time before American congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dominated the media and was a household name, but that time was two years ago in 2018; it’s fair to say by the time I watched Knock Down the House I was aware of her. However, I certainly didn’t know who Ilhan Omar was before Time for Ilhan — though she had a small amount of notoriety, at least in the state she represents now in the House of Representatives, but the film follows her before that time, when she was just competing for state congressional representation. Both of them now have international profiles, and it’s good to see women of colour in such positions, though Knock Down the House makes the point that representation should come from across gender, racial and class divides, and even if three of the four women in that documentary didn’t get elected, it’s good to see some tiny seeds of change that might move power away from the richest families.
In new releases this week, there’s a limited release for Chinese documentary Present. Perfect., which I’ve already reviewed, so do check that out if you are able to, because I liked it. The big film out this week, though, is Armando Iannucci’s new film which premiered at last year’s London Film Festival, The Personal History of David Copperfield, so naturally I’ve been doing a themed week of adaptations of Dickens… That’s not actually true; I just forgot to set up any posts to go out this week. That said, I haven’t seen all that many Dickens-themed films recently — though the Criterion Collection has David Lean’s 1940s ones of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, and there was that Ralph Fiennes film which touched on his life, The Invisible Woman (2013). So here’s a review of Iannucci’s last film.
I like Armando Iannucci’s comedy quite often, and here I laughed (or at least smiled) quite a bit. The performances are fantastic, and there’s more than one candidate for stealing this film (Rupert Friend or Michael Palin are highlights, and Jason Isaacs is just brilliant), while Simon Russell Beale as Beria and Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev are just as strong and consistent as ever. And yet, there’s a dark heart to this blithe blustering comedy of political ineptitude that’s barely ever hidden: the idea that when murderous despotic regimes are allowed to run their course for decades, the moral vacuum that results amongst those who remain is so total that even as we want to cheer for those who are most sure of themselves (and Isaacs’ Zhukov is surely chief among them), at the same time these characters all behave with utterly repugnant immorality. I suppose the way that Beria’s sexual depravity is woven into the comedy is a case in point — hardly hiding it, but also making it something of a throwaway sideshow to the comedic japery of authoritarian power struggles. I liked it, and I admired it as filmmaking, but seemingly in spite of my better instincts.
Director Armando Iannucci; Writers Iannucci, David Schneider and Ian Martin (based on the graphic novel La Mort de Staline by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin); Cinematographer Zac Nicholson; Starring Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, Andrea Riseborough, Paddy Considine; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Genesis, London, Monday 23 October 2017 (and again on Blu-ray at home, London, Saturday 2 November 2019).
The latest documentary by American filmmaker and photographer Lauren Greenfield deals with the larger than life figure and real-life influence of Imelda Marcos, First Lady of the Philippines during her husband Ferdinand’s dictatorship. It’s the film around which I’ve been working my Philippines cinema-themed week, and I saw it yesterday, a day which saw a large UK election victory for a populist demagogue from the right-wing of the country, elected on the back of a decade of his party’s damaging desire to leave one of the biggest trading blocs in the world, thoroughgoing austerity policies, huge cuts to welfare and other sustained attacks on the most impoverished within society. So that’s fun.
Lauren Greenfield has made films about people with immense wealth before, and both those and her books tend to cover that uncomfortable collision of aspirational wealth and real lived experiences, about little corners of the human psyche (or rather bigger ones in some cases) that desire the glossy fashion spread lifestyle. Imelda Marcos largely fits neatly into that, but with a far bigger and more dangerous political footprint that continues to make itself felt. Ostensibly the title is about her relationship with her husband, the massively corrupt dictator of the Philippines for two decades from the mid-60s to the mid-80s (at which point he was ousted by a ‘People Power’ revolution via the wife of an assassinated opposition leader, Corazon Aquino), whose power she was said to manipulate for her own ends, most famously for the acquisition of art, designer items and of course shoes. But the film moves quickly on from these trappings to her real and lingering effect on Filipino politics, via her family’s dynasty and their support for current dictator-wannabe and populist strongman demagogue Rodrigo Duterte.
Stylistically it frames Marcos with the opulence of her living spaces, repeatedly showing her handing out money to her loyal supporters crowding around her car or in public appearances (the money often held and distributed by her staff at her direction). She shows off her artworks and photos of herself with world leaders (at one point, hilariously, but utterly unconcernedly, breaking some of these framed photos while reaching to show off one, I think with her and Nixon). She is also apparently blithely unaware of how her namedropping comes across, especially when she’s talking about the aforementioned world leaders or her art collection. She could be a figure of fun, but gradually the film becomes more and more serious about her impact, as it layers on the Marcos’s crimes and the real effects of the policies and division they have sowed within their nation, paving the way for her and her family’s chilling return to power.
Director/Writer Lauren Greenfield; Cinematographers Lars Skree and Shana Hagan; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Friday 13 December 2019.
Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent’s 2018 film The Nightingale is released in UK cinemas today, by all accounts a brutal drama about a woman seeking revenge. Last year also saw the release of Mike Leigh’s grand reenactment of historical events that are now 200 years old, a brutal massacre by the government of poor and disenfranchised people demanding Parliamentary reform, a massacre which led eventually to changes in the electoral system. I didn’t love the film, but there’s plenty to commend it all the same.
Oh, there are bits in this long evocation of working-class northern England (well, Manchester, specifically) that I really liked, but I’m already struggling to remember what those were in the overwhelming sense that this is a piece of teachable didactic history intended to be introduced in classrooms with study packs and discussion points… [adopting teacher voice] “So you heard the aristocrats voicing their anxiety about the French Revolution while idly quaffing wine; do you understand how that could have been an underlying reason for why they felt compelled to send in the cavalry so quickly?” etc etc. The problem is, I never really felt any of that: the characters were types, represented ideas and classes, embodied such roles as ‘mill workers’, ‘land-owning reformers’, ‘aristocrats’, ‘the King, who is obviously a massive wanker’ et al. When they discussed ideas, I never got a sense of what these might mean for any actual people, and so the whole just came across as a pageant (or even as propaganda), such that the final battle never really had much emotional pull for me — other than the obvious ‘this is bad: never trust the government’. There’s also a constant sense of cheeky jollity on the sidelines, sparkling little bits of wordplay or hamminess, that made me feel like I was supposed to laugh at everyone. The performances are fine, as far as they are written at all (Maxine Peake is never bad), but too much of it is fairly one-note, so it’s only in small details that the film comes alive — fiddlers practising in the fields on the outskirts of town, a cat leaping around behind a mill owner fulminating at his workers taking time off, that kind of thing. It’s well-mounted, it will hopefully spur discussion and understanding, but it never really felt alive to me as a film.
Director/Writer Mike Leigh; Cinematographer Dick Pope; Starring Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Pearce Quigley; Length 154 minutes.
Seen at Vue Islington, London, Saturday 17 November 2018.
I’m doing a week focusing on ‘very long’ (3hr+) films, but most of these have been made by men, perhaps overeager to flex their cinematic clout or show off their stamina (amongst other things). However, there have been plenty of directors working in television who have pulled off longer-form work in the guise of mini-series and multi-part episodic drama. One such figure, working in the documentary form, is Molly Dineen, who like a British Frederick Wiseman, has been profiling institutions and work throughout her career. Her longest films are The Ark (1993) and In the Company of Men (1995), which respectively look at London’s zoo and the British Army (as deployed in Northern Ireland), but she also has a number of shorter works to her name. Her most recent film, Being Blacker (2018) is one I haven’t yet caught up with, but everything else I talk about below. All of these have been released by the BFI on the three-part DVD set The Molly Dineen Collection, which is well worth tracking down.
Satire has always been a popular artistic form, especially when confronted with the wealth and ingrained power of the American elites. As a form, it has been utilised by a number of filmmakers over the years, notably African-American artists seeking to attack the privilege and entitlement of the (majority white) leaders, whether of government, the media or the corporate world. Whereas a film like Dear White People (2014) and its subsequent TV series may look at the educational system, the films below cover the institutions that support American power most directly — the FBI and corporate America — and in Chameleon Street suggests the contortions that such power inflict on the (Black) psyche.
I’ve seen a fair few Lav Diaz films now (which means several days’ worth of running time probably), and reviewed some of them on here, but I have yet to really have my Damascene moment with his work. I like his style, I like the way his films are shaped, which seems to me to be distinct and different from a lot of contemporary cinema. Yet for all that I’ve at times really liked the experience of watching one of his often epic-length narratives, I still don’t find them as thrilling as I should, and I fear that may be the case for this one too. It’s a musical, yes, but it’s very much a Lav Diaz film too, for all that this might entail. I do, however, feel like I’ve learned a lot about Filipino society and history from his work, which can be its own reward of course, and will be why I keep returning to him. (I hope to do a themed week around cinema of the Philippines soon.)
In most musicals people sing to express joy or love, where the heightened presentation reflects the characters’ excessive emotional states, but then there are those musicals where the songs mask a deeper pain that cannot be expressed through simple words, and, well, I’ll let you guess which of those categories this film falls into. It’s called Season of the Devil and it’s set in the late-70s during the Marcos regime, as bands of vigilantes have been organised into uniformed militias (the CHDF) to maintain local order and the power of the regime through violence and repression. The setting is a remote village where a young woman (Shaina Magdayao) has set up a free clinic, and the lush black-and-white cinematography recalls Lav Diaz’s recent historical epic A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (2016). This one moves at more of a clip, but it still expresses a great deal of pain, and feels like one of his bleaker films of recent years, and we see the people of this small community in pain at the violence and tyranny wrought by the government. Fairly uneasy viewing in Duterte’s Philippines, one suspects, and this perhaps explains why it was shot in Malaysia.
Director/Writer Lav Diaz; Cinematographer Larry Manda; Starring Piolo Pascual, Shaina Magdayao; Length 234 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Sunday 18 August 2019.
For my week of Iranian cinema I can’t really avoid Abbas Kiarostami. He is, by some way, the pre-eminent figure in Iranian cinema, certainly the best-known, though some of his earlier films can be difficult to see. Many have been banned in Iran for political reasons, not least his 1979 documentary First Case, Second Case which was filmed on either side of that year’s revolution.
At one level this feels like a dour, controlled and apparently innocuous morality lesson with a documentary-like precision, as a series of talking heads comment on two different examples from a classroom where disobedient boys are being punished: one in which one the boys denounces his colleagues, the other in which they stand united. However, it was made at the time of the Iranian Revolution, and the moral questions are ones that pierce to the heart of any society, especially this one at this time: should we stand with our colleagues who are being unfairly treated, or denounce them for personal gain (and even if do, have we really gained anything). The first people we hear from are the fathers of each of the boys, and then a series of governmental, religious, cultural and educational figures, who broaden the debate to one of fairness and indeed about whether the teacher was in the right. Of course, these lines of argument become rather leading at a time when the entire country was in turmoil: the film was banned and many of those speaking in the film were suppressed later.
Director/Writer Abbas Kiarostami عباس کیارستمی; Cinematographer Houshang Baharlou هوشنگ بهارلو; Length 53 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Arlecchino, Bologna, Friday 28 June 2019.