Criterion Sunday 153: Général Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait (General Idi Amin Dada, 1974)

An odd documentary, with a double focus. On the one hand this is the Ugandan dictator’s film, as he gives directions to the camera and stages scenes, rambles on about his political philosophy and shows all the strings to his bow — political speechmaker, military commander (in a particularly underwhelming run-through of a prospective attack on Israel), tour guide to the African wildlife, and even accordion player. The other side of the film is Barbet Schroeder’s inserts, a pre-credits sequence of mass killings, a mention during a particular grumpy meeting that Amin holds with the foreign ministry that the minister was found dead a few weeks later, questions about his views on Hitler after producing a letter sent to the IOC following Munich. It’s chilling in its way, this genial fool and the damage and death he caused, but always relevant.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Barbet Schroeder | Cinematographer Néstor Almendros | Length 90 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 16 April 2017

Advertisements

Criterion Sunday 145: Hoří, má panenko (The Firemen’s Ball aka The Fireman’s Ball, 1967)

This seems a very slight premise — the volunteer firemen in a small town throw a ball to honour a former chairman stricken with cancer — but it builds to quite a comic evisceration of small-town bureaucracy, small-minded men or, perhaps, an entire dysfunctional government, if you want to follow it through that way. In any case, it builds plenty of gags on its thin premise, as things get ever more absurd and those red-faced old men are shown up for the ineffectively authoritarian fools they are.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Miloš Forman | Writers Miloš Forman, Ivan Passer and Jaroslav Papoušek | Cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček | Starring Jan Vostrcil | Length 71 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 19 February 2017

A Revolution in Four Seasons (2016)

There have been a number of recent films (documentaries and fiction films) about the Arab Spring and what has resulted from that, and it’s fair to say from what I’ve seen, there’s not yet any kind of triumphant narrative to be told about it. Charting the turbulent political developments in Tunisia (where the ‘Arab Spring’ began), this film focuses on two women from opposing sides of a political divide that’s roughly dissected by Islamist belief. However, the film is careful to avoid demonising either: both Emna (the ‘blogger’) and Jawhara (the politician) are intelligent, reflective women working within a legacy of feminist thought and activity. Both are equally committed to a future for their nation, even if one passionately believes in secularism where the other wants to retain a link to a rich Islamic cultural and religious heritage. In taking these two as subjects, the film also charts a relationship between women, work and family in modern Tunisia that’s quite fascinating in its own right, and even early assumptions a viewer might make about Jawhara and Emna’s husbands turn out, over the course of the years during which the film was made, to be misguided in differing directions. It’s hard to know where the future of the region lies, but one hopes in listening to these passionate women (and even their husbands) that there may yet be a positive way forward.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Jessie Deeter | Cinematographers Bassem Aounallah and Hatem Nechi | Length 87 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 7 November 2016

Weiner (2016)

We hear a lot in the news, even here in the UK, about US politics, but most of it makes little enough impact, and certainly you don’t expect to find much of interest in a documentary about a minor and latterly disgraced political figure. I vaguely remember Anthony Weiner for being mocked on the Daily Show years ago, but this film following his 2013 campaign to become New York mayor turns out to be surprisingly great and rather funny too. Sure, he comes across as immensely — almost pathologically — desirous of publicity and success, but his story isn’t without pathos: from all that we see, he’s a passionate advocate on behalf of various high-minded social causes, is a powerful public speaker, and clearly cares about his city and its people. It’s just that he’s also done some stupid things that overshadow everything’s he’s trying to achieve, not to mention putting strain on his marriage to Huma, a woman who turns out to the secret star (not to mention heart) of the piece. And so, in unspooling these events and recording Weiner’s wide-ranging and sometimes unguarded commentary, Weiner becomes a film about the hubris of modern political ambition.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg | Cinematographer Josh Kriegman | Length 96 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Tuesday 12 July 2016

Lotte in Italia (Struggle in Italy, 1971)

It feels like a difficult thing to come to this film, however much of Godard’s 1960s output you’ve seen (or even Tout va bien or his later work from the 1980s on), because it’s so much a part of a movement and a heavily-politicised time in both his life and that of cultural institutions in Western Europe. What we have here is Godard (with his occasional collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin) working within the “Groupe Dziga-Vertov” collective (named for an important early Soviet filmmaker and theorist), making agit-prop pieces seeking to contextualise and free the worker from a bourgeois framework. Needless to say, too, it’s all very densely allusive and, as has long been Godard’s way, anchored very much by written and spoken texts (here, in Italian with another layer of French translation). The film is structured in three parts with Paola (Cristiana Tullio-Altan) seen first in various situations attempting to espouse a radical ideology, in the second part learning how her actions are framed by bourgeois ideology, and in the third reintegrating her actions with reference to the means of production. Or at least, this is what I think is going on, but it would probably require someone with a sustained understanding of the political struggles — and perhaps a few more viewings — to articulate it more meaningfully. In terms of this progress of thought, there’s a lot of to-do about the black leader which breaks up the various scenes of Paola at the start, later replaced by images of workers in factories, while the voiceover draws attention to the artifice of the film itself. Throughout, faces are largely eschewed in favour of showing actions, with the camera (this work presumably done by Godard and Gorin themselves) tending to frame body parts. It’s a provocation, of course, but it marks a stage on Godard’s filmic evolution.

Screening alongside this film are the Ciné-tracts made by Godard, from a series of 41 three-minute silent black-and-white short films intended to be distributed cheaply around the country and to prompt a dialogue about state power and control. Although unsigned, Godard’s shorts have been identified and take the form of slyly punning text written on a collage of still photographs showing dissent and activism. Standing apart from these is Ciné-tract numéro 1968 (credited to Godard and artist Gérard Fromanger), which simply but effectively films a painting of a French flag in which the band of red paint slowly leaks across the flag like blood, vividly coloured and graphically striking.


RETROSPECTIVE FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Tuesday 16 February 2016

Lotte in Italia (1971)
Directors/Writers Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin [as “Groupe Dziga-Vertov”] | Starring Cristiana Tullio-Altan | Length 62 minutes

Ciné-tracts (1968) [#7-10, 12-16, 23, 40]
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard [uncredited] | Length c33 minutes (3 minutes each)

Ciné-tract numéro 1968 (1968)
Directors Jean-Luc Godard and Gérard Fromanger | Length 3 minutes

UKJFF: Hotline (2015)

UK Jewish Film Festival logoThis screening at the UK Jewish Film Festival was introduced by a programmer, and there was a Q&A afterwards. I didn’t stay for this, as I couldn’t stomach the idea of politicians bickering with journalists about Arab-Jewish relations and the wider regional conflicts the film engages with.


The treatment of refugees by the governments of developed nations has been a big topic for some time, and continues to crop up in all kinds of discussions (whether related to refugees or not; the last few days have seen that they provide a convenient figure of blame in all kinds of crises). The recent conflict in Syria has seen a huge influx into mainland Europe, but Israel has had its share of refugees too, primarily coming overland from North Africa via the Sinai peninsula, as revealed in this documentary. The ‘hotline’ of the title isn’t really a telephone call centre, but an NGO dealing with the plight of refugees, and the statistics presented by its charismatic and outspoken director Sigal Rozen reveal that Israel has granted refugee status to virtually nobody since 1951. Rozen and her staff are seen helping the refugees to navigate the tedious bureaucratic processes from their small Tel Aviv office, as well as stumping for them in community meetings and in parliamentary committees. The film largely opens with one such meeting, where Rozen is almost literally attacked by the aggrieved residents, to whose vicious taunts and hate speech she can only counter by repeating her message that this is a problem created by politicians and that needs to be addressed by them; her office can only try to help the migrants to settle where the government allows. In the process, we get plenty of this kind of head-to-head (or head-to-brick-wall) conflict over matters of basic human decency, but we are left with a picture of how difficult it is in modern democracies to really deal with such urgent matters when there is no political will to do so. Of course it’s a complicated subject, and though the film engages with some entrenched and specific local issues that exist in this part of the Middle East, one can imagine the same events taking place in small underfunded offices across Europe.


FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: UK Jewish Film Festival
Director/Cinematographer Silvina Landsmann | Length 99 minutes || Seen at Phoenix, London, Thursday 12 November 2015

They Will Have to Kill Us First (2015)

There are, I suppose, two intertwined stories in this documentary, subtitled “Malian Music in Exile”. One is an affirmative and upbeat story of the creativity and energy of Mali’s musicians, working across a range of styles (whether traditional, rock or even rap). The other is the precarious political situation in the West African republic, where the northern part of the country has long been contested by native Touareg peoples and whose leadership has in recent years been the subject of various takeover attempts by insurgent al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist forces, one of whose edicts included the banning of all music. This background is dispatched fairly quickly by a rapper who opens the documentary, though a sense of the region’s conflicts returns periodically, sometimes as an aside to the musicians’ stories, and sometimes taking centre stage. The key figure in this regard is ‘Disco’, an outspoken critic of the Islamist policies and rule, who is married to a senior figure within the Touareg political community, himself a former Army commander within the Malian government. Disco and her compatriot Khaira Arby have been displaced by the fighting but are keen to return to their native town of Timbuktu as soon as the way is clear for them to make music there. In tandem with this narrative are two other stories of musicians who have had to leave the north of the country. Moussa is another Touareg musician, whose wife still lives in the north, meaning he is torn between staying in exile in Ouagadougou (in neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire) and returning home, despite the distinct threat of violence which forced him out — primarily that, as neither an Islamist nor a Touareg rebel, he is caught between the two sides and in danger from both. Meanwhile, the members of Songhoy Blues (from a different community of northern Malian people) seem to have found a more settled existence in Bamako, to the south of Mali, and even a degree of international fame thanks to Western projects that have brought them to recording studios and concerts in London. All these strands are kept expertly in play by documentarian Johanna Schwartz, without losing sight of the wider political dimensions of their situation. In the end it’s a broadly life-affirming story about the power of music to bring communities together, in which the lurking political dangers are fairly downplayed (although there is some rather graphic footage of dismembering near the outset, to give a sense of the insurrectionary forces and their mangling of Islamic principles), and a more rounded sense of what it means to be a refugee from their point of view (rather than the rather more hostile one of the countries where they end up, as is more commonly portrayed by the media).


© Mojo Musique

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Johanna Schwartz | Cinematographer Karelle Walker | Length 100 minutes || Seen at Hackney Picturehouse, London, Saturday 24 October 2015

Suffragette (2015)

As one of the big cinematic releases here in the UK this autumn, Suffragette goes back to a fertile period of modern history — the 1910s shortly before the outbreak of World War I — tackling a story that’s certainly well-known to people at least in passing, if rarely thus far attempted on the big screen. Partially that may be due to the rather limited scope of the so-called ‘suffragettes’, being the militant wing of the campaign for women’s suffrage (voting rights); they were, after all, engaged in a domestic form of terrorism, albeit directed at manifestly unjust laws (not even all men had the vote in this period). Moreover it’s debated amongst historians quite how effective their campaign was, and it’s suggested that women’s involvement in work during World War I was more decisive in swaying political opinion on the matter (in 1918 women over 30, along with all men over 18, were awarded voting rights). However, that doesn’t change the fact that this is a stirring story of a small number of women who campaigned passionately for something they believed in enough to suffer abuse and imprisonment (and in some cases even death), and which continues to have resonances today, judging from the list that ends the film of when various countries finally allowed women the vote. It’s unquestionably a handsomely-mounted piece, with plenty of detail in the costumes and setting, and although most of the central characters are fictional creations, they are in some cases (most notably Helena Bonham Carter’s militant pharmacist) based on some aspects of real life figures, while there are effectively cameos from the movement’s leading lights (including Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst, and Natalie Press as Emily Wilding Davison). However, in some ways the film’s real achievement is in focusing on one working-class family woman (Carey Mulligan’s Maud, married to Ben Whishaw’s Sonny), rather than the upper middle-class ladies who are usually the linchpin of such stories. It’s her realisation of the importance of political representation, as effectively contextualised within her unfavourable working environment in an East End laundry, that moves the narrative along, and all the details of her working life are the most persuasive aspects of the drama. There are indeed many more stories of this type to be told about women in history — the past hundred years of cinema has provided rather a surfeit of tales of chauvinist political machinations — and Suffragette should be welcomed as a big-budget evocation of an important, if under-represented, story.


© Focus Features

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Sarah Gavron | Writer Abi Morgan | Cinematographer Edu Grau | Starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson | Length 106 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Thursday 22 October 2015

Censored Voices (2015)

Fitting into the same general category as The Gatekeepers of a few years back, this new film to grapple with Israeli politics does so through the prism of the ‘Six-Day War’ of 1967, in some ways the foundational conflict of the state of Israel as it’s known today, in which a combined attack from neighbouring Arab states was repelled and new territory annexed. The film draws on recently released audio recordings with young Israelis involved in the fighting (including a young Amos Oz), many of whom were conscripted, and who are distinctly less than gung-ho after the decisive conclusion of the conflict. In order to give the film some visual impact, those same people, now rather old, sit next to the tape recorders and the camera watches their faces as their youthful words are summoned. Amongst this is interwoven archival footage which touches on what’s being discussed (even if, obviously, it’s not precisely of the situations being described). It’s useful once again to be given a sense that a range of democratic opinions are available in Israel, though the legacy of the conflict — an ongoing militarisation in response to a (perhaps not unreasonable) paranoia of being attacked — is not dwelt upon, except as a sort of shadow that lurks in the background. Indeed it’s clear from the final words, when these older participants are given a chance to reflect on their younger selves, that some have hardened in their opinions. However, for its (relatively brief) running time, Censored Voices provides an interesting perspective on a key 20th century conflict that continues to resonate in the region.


© kNow Productions

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Mor Loushy | Writers Mor Loushy and Daniel Sivan | Cinematographer Avner Shahaf | Length 84 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 19 October 2015

LFF: “Make More Noise! Suffragettes in Silent Film” (2015)

BFI London Film Festival This compilation of early cinema short films was presented at the London Film Festival. It was given an introduction by one of the programmers.


What with the recent release of Suffragette, it being the opening gala for the London Film Festival, there’s been a recent resurgence of interest in the so-called “suffragettes”, a media term of derision originally, referring to the militant wing of women agitating for universal voter suffrage. Hence there’s this compilation film of early archival short films from 1899-1917 touching on their cause, which has had a short release at cinemas aside from its Festival screenings. The newsreel footage is relatively slender, but we get key events like the trampling of Emily Wilding Davison at the 1913 Derby (such a brief snippet within the coverage of the race overall that you need only blink to miss it). Padding out the running time are some comedy short films, including two featuring the ‘Tilly girls’, two young Edwardian women with little regard for the stuffy conventions of their era, not to mention a silly film in which a husband fantasises about violent retributions on his nagging suffragist wife. In any case, my friend Pam has written much more volubly and eloquently on its contents for The Guardian so you’d be better off just reading her piece. As for me, I found it largely likeable, if sometimes (necessarily) challenging in its period attitudes. The clips are well contextualised by modern intertitles, and there’s an excellent new piano score by Lillian Henley.


FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival
Length 75 minutes || Seen at Rich Mix, London, Sunday 18 October 2015