A Diptych about the Modern Philippines: “For Example, the Philippines” (2010/2015)

I’ve done a number of themed weeks around genres recently, and I wanted to get back to a country. This Friday sees the UK cinema release of Lauren Greenfield’s new documentary about Imelda Marcos, The Kingmaker, so my week’s theme is going to be the Philippines — mostly by Filipino filmmakers, but I’m starting with an American director looking in. Filipino history isn’t exactly well-known in the west, though a number of the country’s directors have told historical stories in film form, notably Lav Diaz with A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (2016), in which independence leader Andrés Bonifacio’s wife is a central character (even if the film is more of a poetic-historical interpretation), and the question persists throughout about why Bonifacio was betrayed by his compatriots — one of the reasons why his birth of 30 November (and not his death) is the date used to celebrate him now in the country.

However, there are still questions about the extent to which the Philippines is truly independent from outside political influence (not exactly unusual amongst any country in our globalised modern economy, into one tangent of which recent documentary Overseas provides a fascinating glimpse). The Philippines may have overthrown its former Spanish imperialist masters, but the Americans quickly swooped in during the early-20th century and retain a presence. Over a hundred years later, in the early-2010s, American director John Gianvito put together a carefully-researched documentary diptych themed around the two largest overseas US military bases (at least, until their closure in the early 1990s), both of which were in the Philippines. He calls this diptych “For Example, the Philippines” and one can imagine similar stories in other territories in which the US (or other colonial imperialist powers) have meddled. It’s at once unsurprising, yet illuminating about this specific history, and also in the end utterly focused (even over its cumulative nine hours) about just who is paying the price for this century of imperial ambition. It gives voice to people never usually afforded time in grand political documentaries, and thereby extends the form.


Vapor Trail (Clark) (2010)

As a documentary this initially comes across as somewhat academic: lots of black leader, intertitles and subtitles with dense historical text and quotations, and an odd interplay of sound and silence, but over the course of its 4hr+ running time, it builds up a complex picture of the legacy of US imperialism in the Philippines, and more specifically the environmental and human cost of their abandoned Clark military base (used as the staging post for all of America’s wars in Southeast Asia and the Middle East until its closure in 1991). The interviews with the key modern players in this environmental crisis play out at length, supported by relevant clips and quotes where necessary, and there’s a constant throughline about the fraught history between the two nations (most notably the war with the US which took place after the Philippines declared independence from Spain in 1898), and director John Gianvito continuously probes his interview subjects about what they’ve been taught or know about this war, the answer generally being very little. And so the environmental catastrophe — with its toll on human lives (expressed through images of many many gravestones for children, many of whom never lived beyond a single day), not to mention some pretty harrowing interviews — plays out against a backdrop of historical erasure, the suggestion being perhaps that those who don’t pay attention to their history with respect to American imperialist and militarist ambitions are doomed to repeat it.

Wake (Subic) (2015)

Whereas the earlier film was set at the former Clark airbase and its nearby community, this follow-up in Gianvito’s diptych focuses on the legacy of Subic naval base. Both have some protagonists and interviewees in common, notably Teofilo aka “Boojie”, who leads several organisations dedicated to cleaning up the environment around these former bases, which have been so toxic and destructive to the communities (people who originally worked at the bases and even found some economic stability, but now live in great poverty afflicted by diseases brought on by toxic contaminants).

If it were just a journalistic piece about these families, it would be an angry indictment of governmental corruption and lack of responsibility. However, even more than the earlier film, Wake (Subic) weaves in the contested history between the US and the Philippines, in which the former was for a long time the aggressive imperialist power and which even now largely controls many of the political decisions being made in the country, with less direct responsibility than, say, in Puerto Rico (colonised around the same era) but every bit as much disrespect — much of it grounded in racism (alongside, of course, economic profiteering). Indeed, the documentary evidence of early-20th century US military interventions — part of a US-Philippine war which, it becomes evident, is barely taught officially in the country — are chilling, with a series of photos of near-genocidal acts of extermination, alongside written accounts from senior politicians (including a future President, Taft) minimising all this brutal repression in the language of smug westerns spouting their Christian civilising influence (in a country already devoutly Catholic).

CREDITS
Director/Cinematographer John Gianvito; Length 541 minutes (in two parts of 264 minutes and 277 minutes).
Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Saturday 4 November 2017 and Sunday 5 November 2017.

Harriet (2019)

As is traditional at this time of year, distributors are dumping a lot of their awards contenders into cinemas, along with other uncategorisable films as counter-programming perhaps or just because being winter, a lot of people are going to the cinema and taking more chances. As such, there’s no shortage of things I want to watch coming out this week. One is Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, though I’ve done horror films and I’ve done Australian films as themes already, so instead I’m going to focus on films set in the 19th century, starting with Harriet which is the release I was building up to last week with my biopic-themed week of reviews.


This is a curious film, made by the same director who did Eve’s Bayou (1997) but in an altogether different register, a by-the-numbers biopic replete with crescendoes of music to guide our way through the drama, and beautiful shots of the American countryside (around Virginia, I gather), the rising sun casting its glow over Cynthia Erivo-as-Harriet’s newly-freed face. Indeed, there is a constant suggestion throughout that the Divine presence is shining on Tubman, and she is seen frequently falling into reveries that suggest — like a modern Joan of Arc (who is even referenced at one point) — that God is talking to her, as she is inspired to lead slaves out of the South to freedom, avoiding slave-catchers and bounty-hunters along the way. That, though, may be the most interesting twist to the story (suggesting, after all, the director of the gloriously uncategorisable Black Nativity). It feels at times like this needed an even larger canvas, a multi-part structure perhaps, to tell its tale, as it rushes through Tubman’s Civil War exploits towards the end in just a couple of scenes. And though I can’t fault Erivo’s performance, she is curiously single-note as a character — and perhaps that’s the trouble with being an icon (or a saint) — while some of the supporting players don’t feel very much more substantial. Still, there are these gorgeous old-fashioned photos of the cast over the end credits that suggest an evident love for the characters and the period. Perhaps the film will have a valuable educational purpose, but at times it feels just a little inert.

Harriet film posterCREDITS
Director Kasi Lemmons; Writers Gregory Allen Howard and Lemmons; Cinematographer John Toll; Starring Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Janelle Monáe, Clarke Peters; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Friday 22 November 2019.

Hidden Figures (2016)

One of the more successful biopics in recent years has also been one that has dealt rather more frankly with issues of racism and sexism in the workplace, hardly avoidable given that in Hidden Figures the workplace is NASA in the 1960s. Some have criticised it for its blandly mainstream qualities and some of the liberties it takes with the truth, but the acting is more than equal to the subject, and it’s a rousing film which presents a different view of a cinematically familiar era.


I thought that I might have a problem with clunky movie clichés about smart people, or period films dealing with racism, or against-the-odds stories, or big Hollywood dramas — you know the ones, like standing in front of a blackboard filled with mathematic equations, or racist white cops and loaded glances from rooms filled with white guys in suits, or that bit where our protagonist proves their essential worth to aforesaid rooms, or music cues that guide how you’re supposed to react — but it turns out I don’t, if those protagonists are played by Janelle, Taraji and Octavia. I would happily watch more of any of them running intellectual (not to mention sartorial) circles around hissable baddies like Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons, who in this movie are the very embodiment of white privilege. We need more heroes like these three, and if anything Hidden Figures makes me retroactively disappointed for all those other space race movies about the 1960s, which only had the rooms filled with suited buzzcut white men.

Hidden Figures film posterCREDITS
Director Theodore Melfi; Writers Allison Schroeder and Melfi (based on the non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly); Cinematographer Mandy Walker; Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Friday 17 February 2017.

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

Of recent cinematic talent, there are few who have garnered as much attention as Barry Jenkins — not least thanks to his Oscar-winning Moonlight (2016), though that came quite a few years after his debut Medicine for Melancholy (2008). Still, it allowed him to make this film, which is as gorgeous and sensuous a film as any made in the last decade.


I mean, clearly, I was never not going to love this film: Barry Jenkins’ filmmaking is almost the definition of what I like in terms of film style, a swooning, gauzy, gorgeous, beautifully-orchestrated adaptation of a great writer’s work. (I hadn’t even realised that I’d seen the only other Baldwin film adaptation, which is of the same novel, 20 years ago, and while I doubt that Robert Guédiguian’s À la place du coeur is bad, because I have liked his films a fair deal, it also hasn’t stuck in my mind at all…) Anyway, this film has all the beauty and sense of atmosphere he brought to Moonlight, as it follows the love story of these two young people bringing a child into the world. KiKi Layne is fantastic as Tish, in particular, and I don’t know why she’s not getting all the awards attention, but it’s possibly because she pulls her character in so tightly, as this woman who seems to be trying to disappear under the eyes of the adults around her, almost squeaking out her lines, while very clearly having huge reserves of strength and passion within her that at times become far more evident. Jenkins’ style is to draw out these moments with a great, tender eye, such as when the two families meet together, which is like a slow-motion car crash of a scene, at once going exactly how you expect it will, but also with these moments between actors (Teyonah Parris as Tish’s sister is another highlight), as they catch one another’s eye, or react almost imperceptibly but palpably on film. It’s a gorgeous piece of filmmaking, and a beautiful love story too, which happens to make clear the immense amount of difficulty they have to face just going about their day-to-day lives, as young Black people in America. It may be set in the 70s, but one doesn’t feel much has changed in certain respects.

If Beale Street Could Talk film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Barry Jenkins (based on the novel by James Baldwin); Cinematographer James Laxton; Starring KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Teyonah Parris, Brian Tyree Henry; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 10 February 2019.

Three Black American Satirical Films: The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973), Chameleon Street (1989) and Sorry to Bother You (2018)

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.

Continue reading “Three Black American Satirical Films: The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973), Chameleon Street (1989) and Sorry to Bother You (2018)”

Some Films by Women of the LA Rebellion

The so-called “LA Rebellion” was a movement of sorts that arose amongst African-American filmmakers enrolled at UCLA’s School of Film, Theatre and Television in the 1970s, in the wake of the Civil Rights movement and US involvement in the Vietnam War. Their work was challenging the mainstream cinema, which certainly at that time — and you could make an argument for even now — remained a largely closed industry, in the process expanding the range of visual representations of the Black experience in the United States. The most well-known filmmakers to come from this movement remain the men: Charles Burnett and Haile Gerima, most notably. However, there were also a large number of women making films within this movement, some of whom would go on to work elsewhere in the film industry, but none of whom were ever given much of a chance beyond the film school.

Probably the best known of the women associated with the LA Rebellion has been Julie Dash, whose 1991 film Daughters of the Dust may be the single work most associated with the movement, but even she was not given the chance to direct many films (aside from some made-for-TV films). One of her earliest works is the short dance film Four Women (1975), which may be seven minutes of interpretative dance, but there’s beauty and grace, fabric and texture, hair and body, power and defiance in this dance, and in the Nina Simone song that soundtracks it. She followed it a couple of years later with Diary of an African Nun (1977, pictured above), which has a beautiful quality even in the imperfect decaying 8mm grain as it survives in a restored (as much as possible) print. Based on a story by Alice Walker, the film has a dreamy poetic quality that appears as if through a haze, with its central character finding it difficult to reconcile herself to her religious calling. Probably her finest film prior to Daughters is Illusions (1982, pictured at the top of this post), which may be little more than half an hour, but packs a lot into its World War II-era story of Mignon (Lonette McKee), a woman passing for white in a film studio’s production office. Mignon meets a darker-skinned woman employed to dub white women’s vocals in the pictures. The film nimbly enacts the way that race is deployed and erased, sometimes literally (here represented by an army censor), as well as the complex interactions between representation and reality. Plus, it’s beautifully shot and acted.

Another key figure in the movement is Alile Sharon Larkin, who has spent most of her career as an educator, with scandalously few directing credits. Her first student film was The Kitchen (1975), which touches on issues that are still very present and relevant in our own day — topics, indeed, that dominate a lot of the discourse I see online about the treament of women (particularly Black women and other women of colour). In this film, for example, there’s a sense that Black women are put in institutions and stigmatised with mental health issues for being different within mainstream white society. There’s a lot of play with hair in that respect, and the main character seems to be traumatised by memories of her natural hair being tortured into place with red hot irons, which leads to her donning a wig, directly linked to her being placed into care. These themes are undoubtedly even more visceral to those who live within these beauty constraints, and despite being under seven minutes in length, Larkin’s film captures this well. Like Dash, Larkin went on to make a longer work a few years later with A Different Image (1982, pictured above). There’s a certain earnestness, perhaps borne of the era in which it was made or the seriousness of its intentions, but this is an affecting 50-minute drama about the way that sexualised images in the environment affect socialisation between men and women. The film is never heavy-handed in the way it deploys this theme, with passing images contextualised by the men looking at them — at first, easy to laugh off, like a young boy laughing at the sight of our leading lady’s underwear, or her (male) work colleague’s interactions with another of his friends (who ostentatiously reads Playboy and wants to know if his friend has got some action yet). Progressively these become darker and more troubling, and the film continues to hint at an inability of men to see beyond women’s sexual attributes. It’s nicely acted and well shot by Charles Burnett.

Another woman within the LA Rebellion is Barbara McCullough, who went on to a career as a production manager (particularly within visual effects), a little older than some of her contemporaries, but who made a number of short films at the time. The one I’ve seen is Water Ritual #1: An Urban Rite of Purification (1979). There’s real beauty to this short experimental film, beautifully restored on 35mm, as a woman interacts with a sparse, impoverished environment. It’s all fairly oblique but ends in an act of purifying defiance.

Among the lesser-known figures was Anita W. Addison, who went on to direct TV shows in the 1990s as well as getting involved in production, but who died in 2004. I’m not clear if her short film Eva’s Man (1976) was made under the auspices of UCLA, but her name is linked with the LA Rebellion (at least on the Wikipedia page). Her film obliquely tells the story of a woman who kills her husband, with flashbacks to give a sense of why she might have done it, and sustains a nice claustrophobic atmosphere with a bit of free jazz on the soundtrack.

One final filmmaker I wanted to mention is Malvonna Bellenger, who later worked in local television and the recording industry, and who died from breast cancer in 2003. Her short film Rain (Nyesha) (1978) is ostensibly about a rainy LA day, though it’s not exactly about rain per se. Instead it’s about the possibility of a change coming, washing things away that existed before. And it’s about a young woman who seems from her voiceover to be disconsolate who finds herself becoming more certain as the rain comes down and Coltrane plays in the background. It finds its tone somewhere between elegiac and active, and it sticks to it.

Continue reading “Some Films by Women of the LA Rebellion”

Tongues Untied (1989)

There have been a lot of films about the Black experience in America, but relatively few touching on the intersection with LBGT identities, although there have been more prominent works in the last few years, like Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016). One of the key figures who worked to open up this area was Marlon T. Riggs, a filmmaker, poet and educator who died in 1994 at the age of 37 from AIDS-related complications. It’s a bold and provocative work, all the moreso as it was made for TV (and created quite a bit of controversy on this account).


There’s hardly very much I can possibly add to any discourse around this film, but despite being 30 years old, it still feels like some kind of testament to endurance and defiance through so many multiple sites of oppression and erasure. It’s like a compendium of texts (it largely takes its launching point from an anthology of poetry by gay Black men), of multiple voices speaking, declaiming, laughing, a kaleidoscopic text that has as much joy as it has pain. And while there are pieces in it which feel somewhat of its era, there is just so much that I think still resonates strongly; so much of its formal experimentation has been taken up since then, and yet so much of this still undeniably feels fresh. It’s also at times extremely funny (the Snap!thology bit, as one example), even when what’s being expressed is still ultimately about escaping reductive gazes, finding some measure of freedom — not just from racial oppression, but from conservative voices even within African-American communities (the hate speech we hear, close-up on the mouths, is from all kinds of people, not least clips of Eddie Murphy on-stage, which despite the presence of the in-film audience laughter have no comedic power at all when placed in this context). It’s under an hour in length, but so dense with meanings and voices, and experiences so rarely represented even now in film, that it will undoubtedly continue to be relevant.

Tongues Untied film posterCREDITS
Director Marlon Riggs; Cinematographers Vivian Kleiman and Riggs; Starring Marlon Riggs, Essex Hemphill; Length 55 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 30 March 2019.

The Central Park Five (2012)

The end of this week sees the release of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which is directed by a white man but deals with the African-American experience in the United States (and reminds me of Barry Jenkins’ debut Medicine for Melancholy, also set in that city and grappling with gentrification and how it displaces longstanding communities). Given that racism has defined a large swath of American history, I thought it would be good to devote a themed week to films that deal with the African-American experience, whether from within the community or looking from outside. The first film I’m featuring is a documentary about a particularly racist incident in recent NYC history, dramatised this year by Ava DuVernay on Netflix.


The Central Park Five is a persuasive documentary that tracks the case of the rape and beating of a young woman running through NYC’s Central Park in 1989, and the subsequent arrest and trial of five boys which rested entirely on the evidence of their video-recorded testimony after days of interrogation, without any circumstantial evidence. Modern-day interviews are accompanied by archival clips from the era, and the vast holes in the prosecution’s case, not to mention the frequent corners cut by those involved, adds up to a fine entry in one of the most enduring genres of American documentary: an account of a wrongful conviction. It’s also very much a statement about the operation of race and class in American public and media life, about the way that certain facts about a case can conspire to increase or limit the audience, and the way the media reported on this particular case becomes as much a part of the context of the trial as anything said in court — to the extent that even now people still believe in the suspects’ guilt, against all persuasive evidence.

The Central Park Five film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon; Cinematographers Anthony Savini and Buddy Squires; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 27 May 2019.

Gook (2017)

I reviewed Korean-American director Kogonada’s Columbus (2017) the other day, but today’s film is far more specifically about the Korean-American experience, specifically as filtered through the lens of the 1992 race riots in Los Angeles. It’s about battered and impoverished communities trying to co-exist, expanding significantly on the sideplot of Korean shop-owners in Do the Right Thing (1989).


An interesting premise from a different viewpoint which takes the context of the ’92 LA riots and uses it to tell a story of tensions between the African-American and Asian-American communities (specifically, Korean in this case) in LA. It’s all filmed in a languorous black-and-white, though there aren’t really any white characters, and that’s one of the film’s strengths: that it’s about communities you don’t often see portrayed on screen. However, beyond that it feels like some of the ways the film is tackling its themes are buried in the dramaturgy, engineering conflicts and pushing them to a head with a death that feels like a cheap tactic given what has preceded it. The writing emphasises some of the ways that poverty begets violence, as characters seem to have no other outlet for their feelings than with violence, which just infects everyone to the extent that otherwise sensitive, thoughtful people are just screaming profanities at each other senselessly at times — this film is therefore pretty removed from the Tarantino model of urban warfare. Still, for all that I didn’t particularly warm to that aspect of things, it was good to see some of these performers and filmmakers, and I’d certainly like to see more from them.

Gook film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Justin Chon; Cinematographer Ante Cheng; Starring Justin Chon, David So 데이비드소, Simone Baker; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 18 March 2018.

Films by Warwick Thornton

In my week focusing on Australian films, I’ve already covered some modern classics including Aboriginal director Tracey Moffatt’s beDevil (1993) and a number of documentaries interrogating Australia’s colonialist and racist societal dynamics, notably Another Country (2015). Warwick Thornton is probably the most prominent director from an Aboriginal background currently working in the country, and over the course of a number of short films and two features has burrowed into this history, stepping back to the 1920s with his most recent feature Sweet Country.

Continue reading “Films by Warwick Thornton”