NZIFF 2021: Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché (2021)

In looking at the documentaries featured at the New Zealand International Film Festival, this is formally one of the less interesting ones. It’s a TV documentary originally, and though it has a sweet framing story whereby her daughter learns something about her mother’s past, the real interest is in the subject, who is endlessly fascinating, a mass of contradictions and relentless energy.


In learning about and listening to punk music when I was younger, I somehow contrived never to really engage with X-Ray Spex, although I certainly was passingly aware of its singer and frontwoman/band leader Poly Styrene. This film is as much about her daughter (the co-director Celeste Bell) learning about her mother and retracing her footsteps, as it is about Poly Styrene herself, and so some of it feels a little bit meandering. However, it presents enough interesting archival footage and testimony to fully justify its feature length, as Poly Styrene makes for a riveting central character. Watching those early performances, you can see just how young she was, writing from a very specific place of identity and anger, but whose ideas were clearly still under construction, being in her late-teens when she first took the stage. We discover her real name was Marianne Elliott and that there was a certain amount of pull between these two identities that she was never fully comfortable with, but clearly there was also a lot in her life that was uncomfortable, and it made relations with her daughter and family difficult at times. It’s lovely to see her and to hear from those who knew her and were influenced by her (we never see any of the voices on screen except for Poly and her daughter — this film is about a moment for each of its two protagonists, not about ageing, or speculating on how those we see in 40-year-old images might look now) and as a result she is now my favourite punk persona and I urgently need to listen to those albums.

Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché (2021)

CREDITS
Directors Paul Sng and Celeste Bell; Writers Sng, Bell and Zoë Howe; Cinematographer Nick Ward; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 6 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Gagarine (2020)

Continuing with my reviews of films at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival is this dreamy, almost magical realist French film about a housing estate. Now generally I dislike magical realist films, but this one — for all its spacy themes and title — is very much grounded in lived reality. It’s set in a French housing project and while it eschews the gritty realism of, say, La Haine, it still captures a lot of the same anger and despair while hitting a very much dreamier and hopeful tone. And one of its central protagonists is played by Lyna Khoudri, so excellent in Papicha and surely destined to be a big star (I believe she has a small role in Wes Anderson’s latest The French Despatch).


It’s interesting to read the blurb at the top of the festival programme’s entry for this film — which speaks of Yuri (the central character, played by Alséni Bathily) and his dreams of becoming an astronaut and how he and his two buddies band together to save their estate (or banlieue if you will) — and realise how much it both describes and yet does not capture this film. Because it could describe this film (or at least the first 20 minutes or so), but yet it is so much more than this suggests, not just in complexity but in the wonderment and expressivity of its atmospherics. This is a film about social housing and displacement, about the institutionalised classism and racism of the state, about lives unmoored and threatened by almost unseen forces, and yet it’s really about dreaming, about imagination, about being with others and helping one another to be better but without losing sight of all the ever-present threats of the real world. It’s all quite beautiful and reminiscent a bit of Rocks (in its cast and setting) but without feeling constrained by the niceties of social realism. It cuts loose and just floats serenely, knowing it can take that ride with the central character, because crushing reality is always just around the corner. A very persuasive blend of melancholy and mystery that won me over.

Gagarine (2020)CREDITS
Directors Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh; Writers Liatard, Trouilh and Benjamin Charbit; Cinematographer Victor Seguin; Starring Alséni Bathily, Lyna Khoudri, Jamil McCraven, Finnegan Oldfield; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 6 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 458: El Norte (1983)

I didn’t really expect much going into this, perhaps something a bit well-meaning and earnest, like contemporary Costa-Gavras films or those of John Sayles — which to be fair, is really quite deeply unfair to the latter’s work, but I’m trying to convey that sense of slightly po-faced political dramas about ordinary people in challenging times. In a sense, cinema since then hasn’t really grappled with those topics so much, but in relation specifically to the Anglophone cinema of Latin-American politics that I’m most familiar with, Gregory Nava’s feature has a more poetic register. This isn’t magical realism, though, it’s a poetic realism more akin to the Italian Neorealists, I think, but imbued with a lived sense of how America treats its Latin-American citizens. The central characters are indigenous people, from a small Guatemalan village, who journey to the North because of conditions back home, and who have to endure a lot to get to the very bottom of the ladder in the US. It’s not straightforwardly for or against anything though — their lives in the US do have some benefits compared to the past, but oppression comes in many guises and for all that they do see some material changes to their position, in other ways they are made to feel very much an underclass, not least in terms of the bureaucracy of immigration (and not much has changed there in almost 40 years one suspects). It’s a film that is as concretely about the conditions of work and life as anything else of the decade, but one imbued with a sense of almost mystical dread, that can be at times overwhelming but equally quite beautiful and resonant.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Gregory Nava; Writers Nava and Anna Thomas; Cinematographer James Glennon; Starring David Villalpando, Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez; Length 140 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 3 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 455: White Dog (1982)

It’s interesting to see the way that the pulpy, B-movie aesthetics of Samuel Fuller, developed from his earliest films as director in the late-40s and 50s and present in his 60s classics like Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, translated to the filmmaking scene of the 1980s. This could stand alongside any kind of straight-to-video exploitation horror/thriller movie, of the kind being reclaimed by any number of home video labels nowadays, with its murky colour palette and zooms. It just so happens that having Sam Fuller’s name attached gives it a slightly higher profile (although not enough to give it much chance at success when it was released). But Fuller retains a roughness to it that feels right for the material, dealing with a young woman who takes in a stray dog, that turns out to have been trained to attack Black people. Obviously there’s a racial thematic that Fuller is pursuing and it certainly seems appropriate that for all the havoc and death the dog wreaks, it remains protected by those around it, who are earnestly trying to save the dog from itself and unlearn it of its attack programming. The film comes across as earnest in the way it treats this material, though it’s understandable from the formal qualities (scuzzy exploitation cinema) why it remains challenging.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Samuel Fuller; Writers Fuller and Curtis Hanson (based on the novel by Romain Gary); Cinematographer Bruce Surtees; Starring Kristy McNichol, Paul Winfield, Burl Ives; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 8 August 2021.

Cousins (2021)

Finishing the week of New Zealand-themed films with one that’s just been released in cinemas here, a multi-generational story written and directed by two women filmmakers, which grapples with some of NZ’s colonialist history and how it has affected several indigenous Maori women.


These kinds of generational stories of trauma, especially ones anchored in memory, feel like the kind of thing that New Zealand filmmakers have been adept at making for some time now. This example is a fine one, with each of the three title characters played by three different actors at various ages (childhood, young adulthood and then, around half a century later I would guess, as old people). The film obliquely blends stories from these three different eras, tying them together with flashbacks but also with visual cues and colours in the set and costume design, which have a poetic feeling to them, and makes up for some of the more sentimental stretches in the narrative. That said, I felt wrapped up in the emotion of the journey, which neatly ties together these strands, evoking a sense of ancestry, of the presence of death and the continuation of life that is presumably drawn from mythology as well as a shared understanding of the meaning of the land and of nature. There’s also, rather more directly, a reckoning with the racist policies of previous generations, especially with regards to orphaned children, keeping them from families deemed insufficiently civilised and placed in foster care (and the foster mother here is a bit of a monster). There’s a lot in the characters here, and in the grand sweep of the melodrama, and for the most part it held my attention well.

Cousins film posterCREDITS
Directors Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace Smith; Writer Smith (based on the novel by Patricia Grace); Cinematographer Raymond Edwards; Starring Tanea Heke, Rachel House, Briar Grace Smith; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Friday 5 March 2021.

Criterion Sunday 372: Sanders of the River (1935) and Jericho (1937)

At this remove, of 85 years now, it’s fairly clear that Sanders of the River is condescending paternalistic colonialist propaganda about the civilising influence of the British in their conquest of Africa, specifically among the inland tribes of Nigeria. There are sequences of tribal dances and customs that feels at times close to ethnographic documentary, but it’s all allied to a plot that is just insidiously insistent that Africans can’t govern themselves without the gentle guiding help (and gunboats when necessary) of the British. It’s remarkable then that Paul Robeson agreed to be in this, though by his account it was a different film until late in the editing process. There’s also a fine role for Nina Mae McKinney as his wife, and though neither feels particularly convincing as a Nigerian, it’s clear too that the film has only the most surface of interests in Africa (including a few sequences of dancing women that presumably got by the 1930s censors for their, er, National Geographic ethnographic interest), because the prominence of Leslie Banks’s bland colonial administrator Sanders destabilises the whole thing. Still, for all that I dislike it, it certainly is interesting when viewed in the context of Robeson’s career, and that’s the way that Criterion presents it, alongside Jericho of two years later.

That, of course, is part of the interest in Criterion’s Paul Robeson boxset: his career is a fascinating one, and it wasn’t long after American silent films like Body and Soul before he found more opportunities on the big screen in European productions, with a number of British films in the 1930s. Jericho follows an unhappy experience making Sanders of the River, and gives him a stronger lead role. He plays the titular character (whose full name is Jeremiah Jackson), a sailor during World War I who disobeys his superior officer to rescue some trapped men, accidentally killing the officer in the process. He is court-martialled but escapes, and, in the tortuous way of movie plots, ends up taking up a new life as a leader amongst the Tuareg people in the deserts of North Africa. It’s an interesting portrait of camaraderie amongst Black and white men during wartime, and about the possibility of personal redemption for Jericho, who is essentially a good man and understood as such throughout the film, despite what happened. He gets a slightly annoying American sidekick on his journey to the Tuareg (Wallace Ford), and the final resolution with a fellow soldier who took the blame for his escape (Henry Wilcoxon), doesn’t quite have the emotional heft it probably needs, but it’s a solid role for Robeson and he gets the chance to exercise his vocal cords on a few occasions too.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

Sanders of the River (1935)
Director Zoltán Korda; Writers Lajos Bíró and Jeffrey Dell (based on stories by Edgar Wallace); Cinematographers Osmond Borradaile, Louis Page and Georges Périnal; Starring Paul Robeson, Leslie Banks, Nina Mae McKinney; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Sunday 15 November 2020.

Jericho (aka Dark Sands, 1937)
Director Thornton Freeland; Writers George Barraud and Walter Futter; Cinematographer John W. Boyle; Starring Paul Robeson, Henry Wilcoxon, Wallace Ford; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Saturday 14 November 2020.

Criterion Sunday 371: Body and Soul (1925) and Borderline (1930)

Paul Robeson’s career is of course fascinating, and well worth reading up on, and while his appearance in the stage production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones predates Body and Soul (he had previously gained some success on stage, primarily in musical theatre, in the early-20s), the film of that play wasn’t to be made until the sound era. Instead our first glimpse of Robeson on screen was to be this film by pre-eminent and pioneering Black American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, who five years earlier had made the fascinating (and superior) retort to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in Within Our Gates. Between Micheaux’s filmmaking — which sadly has been ravaged by the censors and survives only in this shorter cut — and Robeson’s magnetic screen presence, this is a fine film made for a Black audience, which very much implicates the role of the church through Robeson’s turn as a devious preacher Reverend Jenkins, who drinks heavily, steals money and commits rape (portrayed subtly but no less clearly) without raising concerns from his adulatory congregation. The film ends with a twist and the reveal of a dual role for Robeson, which stretches credulity somewhat, but this kind of ending is hardly unusual for the period or indeed for American cinema. The Criterion release includes a brilliant jazzy score by Wycliffe Gordon which only adds to the film’s depth, making it a highlight of the silent era.

Five years later and Borderline really feels like a one-of-a-kind film, nominally a Swiss production by a British crew, and a strange experiment in form that plays with all kinds of themes. These range from the racism and hypocrisy of a small town, a man called Thorne (Gavin Arthur) whose marriage is falling apart due to his affair with Adah, a Black woman (Eslanda Robeson) who’s married to Paul Robeson’s character Pete, not to mention what seems like a gay subtext with some of the women we see (one of whom is played by the excellently pseudonymous Helga Doom). Any of these themes individually would probably make the film interesting, but it’s the boldly experimental style that makes it so watchable, cutting across the various characters in an almost free-associative way. The score for the restoration is provided by Courtney Pine, and is jazzy and propulsive when it needs to be and I think elevates the film even further. A strange, singular late-silent period work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

Body and Soul (1925) [classification PG]
Director/Writer Oscar Micheaux (based on his novel); Cinematographer [unknown]; Starring Paul Robeson, Julia Theresa Russell, Mercedes Gilbert; Length 79 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Wednesday 11 November 2020.

Borderline (1930) [classification 12]
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Kenneth Macpherson; Starring Paul Robeson, Eslanda Robeson, Gavin Arthur, Hilda Doolittle [as “Helga Doom”]; Length 65 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Saturday 14 November 2020.

What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? (2018)

Another film that seems relevant to recent political and social crises is this documentary from 2018, re-edited in a shorter ‘director’s cut’ the following year (where it also screened at the Sheffield Doc/Fest). I’ve seen critiques of the film from Black critics, a sense of it as being overly aestheticised and a little removed perhaps from the lives and struggles it’s showing, but the director was keen to emphasise the collaborative nature of the work.


The director was presenting a ‘director’s cut’ of this film (at 106 minutes, slightly shorter than the version premiered at Venice last year and shown at the 2018 London Film Festival), and though I can’t compare the two versions, this is a beautiful monochrome-shot film about a few different Black experiences of life in and around New Orleans. At times there’s some of the quietly observed quotidian reality that you get in, say, RaMell Ross’s Hale County This Morning, This Evening, or a hint at the kinds of generational stories in the TV show Treme, not to mention a panoply of images that recall a myriad of great films about the American South, even at times a sense of a staged performance (as during Judy’s literal performance in her bar near the end of the film). However, this feels like a film that’s not quite observational documentary but a sort of collaborative improvisation, in which Minervini (as he was careful to stress in an on-stage Q&A afterwards) wanted to present voices and stories that were not and could never be his own, and to respect them. So all those familiar stories, about Black peoples’ lives and deaths, about trying to move beyond trauma, or sometimes the inability to do so, these are presented in a graceful, economical manner — you’re never far from the trauma, but that doesn’t feel like the totality of experience by any means. Judy in her bar, the Mardi Gras Indians sewing their elaborate costumes while singing, the two boys playing outside and alongside railroad tracks, Judy’s mother doing her washing out the front of her home, even the New Black Panthers organising and handing out meals and water to local homeless people or protesting the deaths of Black men at the hands of police, all of these moments are both filled with joy and hope even while being inflected by countless stories, memories and history, ones spoken about and others unspoken. There are three central groups of characters in this film, but there are hundreds of stories in every sequence I think, and that’s what Minervini is great at capturing.

What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire? film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Roberto Minervini; Cinematographer Diego Romero; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 12 April 2019.

The Stuart Hall Project (2013)

In a sense this film is about one person, Stuart Hall, a prominent cultural theorist who sadly died the year after this was made, but in talking about his work and life, it touches on the history of the United Kingdom, its colonialism and its own struggles in relationship to that colonial past, that continue to echo today, that continue to in fact resound very loudly at this very specific moment.


Despite being born in the UK, I wasn’t educated here and therefore was never really introduced to the work of cultural theorist Stuart Hall, having found out about him near the end of his life when this film was made (he died in 2014). However, the archival clips orchestrated here by John Akomfrah, with a backing of musical clips from Miles Davis records, impresses upon me that he really was one of that dying breed of accessible public intellectuals, so thin on the ground in contemporary discourse and surely never more sorely needed. He speaks of his West Indian roots, of coming to Britain to study at Oxford, and of the persistent racism and colonialist attitudes he encountered. In dealing with periods of his life, and of the history of late-20th century Britain, the film also elucidates the social changes that Hall dealt with in his work, the ways that dreams of the past may have died and that other newer ideals came to replace them, but with a throughline relating to the immigrant and postcolonial experience. The film is as much about the construction of identity itself as it is about telling a story of Hall, but it sort of manages to do all of these things, and though I can’t claim to be a great intellectual, it was persuasive and likeable, and idiosyncratic in its ways as something of a multimedia art project (which Akomfrah has done several of, including about Hall), but also a compelling documentary.

The Stuart Hall Project film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer John Akomfrah; Cinematographer Dewald Aukema; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player on Amazon streaming), London, Wednesday 10 June 2020.

Sud (South, 1999)

A lot of people are talking about history at the moment; it seems to be a popular topic of discussion in online communities. Apparently statues are unquestionably a very important source of historical context and understanding to, I guess, some people, I don’t know, but apart from those, and apart from books, films can be a source of understanding of historical situations, as well as places and people, intangible things that are perhaps best conveyed via images and sound, things that film does well. I’m going to do a week of various historical films and documentaries, and while today’s is not strictly speaking about history (the specific incident is very recent history), in a way it’s about something that’s been ongoing for decades if not centuries, about the way that attitudes towards history — corrosive feelings of grievance, a lack of understanding in some cases — can inform present-day actions.


I suppose it’s fair to say that Chantal Akerman doesn’t do issues-driven documentaries quite the same way that others do. Sud is about the murder of a Black man in the American south (James Byrd), but it’s first of all a film about a place (Jasper TX) — its streets, shops, sounds and people — as Akerman’s camera tracks along from a car (long lateral car-bound tracking shots to take in a sense of a place are familiar from her other documentaries like D’est), or as she listens to residents. And then there’s a move into details of this specific case, which happened shortly before she arrived, and we get more details from a local reporter and from the town’s Sheriff, just as we see the funeral too. But all along her documentary is keen to return to the roads, the ones that mark this town out and give it a specificity, but also ones that are the site of ongoing racial violence, confined not just to the past but continuing into the present, haunted by white supremacism and racism.

CREDITS
Director/Writer Chantal Akerman; Cinematographer Rémon Fromont; Length 71 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 3 January 2019.