حقّ الخُبزات Haq Alkhubzat (Bitter Bread, 2019)

Another interesting film I saw at Sheffield Doc/Fest was this new piece by Abbas Fahdel (director of Homeland: Iraq Year Zero, which I’ve yet to catch up with), dealing with refugees displaced by war in Syria into camps scattered throughout the Beqaa Valley, a fertile region of Lebanon.

I visited Lebanon a few years ago; it’s a tiny country, and I vividly remember while driving through the Beqaa Valley seeing all these ad hoc communities of white plastic tents alongside the roads, nestled in amongst the farmers’ fields and vineyards. Looking out across the whole valley, you could see so many of them dotted around and their preponderance is of course because of the now long-running civil war in Syria which has displaced so many millions of people. The majority of them are in Lebanon, with Syrian people now making up something like a quarter of the country’s total population. This documentary gives a little bit of context, via on-screen text that flashes up to explain certain things (like the role of the Lebanese man who oversees some of the camps, or the governmental restrictions on expanding or building new tents), but for the most part this is just a portrait of what one such camp is like, how it feels to live there, the problems they face and the chronic lack of money (which must have become even worse now as the Lebanese economy has fallen off a cliff). The majority of refugees are kids, and we see them helping in the fields, or with domestic chores, playing football in the camps’ open spaces, usually by muddy flowing drains or busy roads (a fence at least exists, albeit because of a recent fatality). They live their lives, trying to remain upbeat, but it’s clear how bad things are and how little help can realistically be provided.

Bitter Bread film posterCREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Abbas Fahdel عباس فاضل; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Thursday 9 July 2020.

Volverte a ver (To See You Again, 2020)

Continuing with my reviews of Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020 films, is this Mexican piece about government cover-ups of extrajudicial murders. It’s a fairly confrontational topic but handled well, focusing on the women — often mothers or partners of the disappeared — who drive this process.

A patient, insistent documentary about continuing governmental cover-ups of extrajudicial murders and ‘disappearances’, following the efforts of a group of women who appear to follow the discovery of various mass graves, and volunteer to work with forensic investigators to try and identify the dead, hoping (but yet not hoping) that their own missing relatives and children will be discovered among them. The official line appears to be that these missing people are due to the operation of drug cartels and organised crime, but clearly that’s not always the case, and lies about how the bodies are found and how many there are in these mass graves, along with statements claiming these graves were for people unclaimed by their family, are shown plainly to be false due to the patient work of the (largely) women who only want to find out the fate of their dead relatives. The cameras cannot go into these sites, but we see the women suiting up in protective gear, and speaking eloquently, including in confrontation with local politicians, about the nature of the work, the decomposing bodies (still relatively recent, as the grave we see being exhumed is from around 2013), the painstaking methods of identification. We see the sheets they fill out, noting all the details of clothing and condition of the bodies, identifying marks, before these are whisked away, often to be lost again in bureaucracy. It’s a very specific story of a group of people, while also seeming to be about a pattern of human rights abuses taking place across Latin America and the world, one that requires we bear witness and continue not to allow this to happen.

To See You Again film posterCREDITS
Director Carolina Corral Paredes; Writers Pedro G. García, Paredes, J. Daniel Zúñiga S., Magali Rocha Donnadieu; Cinematographer Zúñiga; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Sunday 21 June 2020.

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.

Tu crois que la terre est chose morte (You Think the Earth Is a Dead Thing, 2019)

I think my favourite documentary at the Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects online programme 2020 was this French documentary about its overseas dependency of Martinique, which ties in environmental damage with a legacy of colonialism and slavery in surprising and interesting ways.

It’s fairly common to see films about the global environmental crisis, and also occasionally one sees films that deal with the legacy of slavery and colonialism, but it’s particularly interesting the way this film deals with both. In many ways these topics are interlinked, particularly on the island of Martinique where this film is set. Here the French colonialist legacy of sugar plantations (and their ongoing importance to the economy and its export trade) ties in with agricultural pesticides which have undermined the environment, as well as the primarily Black workers whose lives have been threatened by both these things, and who keep herbal remedies alive from generations before. Interviews are filmed with these farmers and plantation hands as they do their work, which exerts its own fascination, and the film’s thesis comes out gradually.

You Think the Earth Is a Dead Thing film posterCREDITS
Director Florence Lazar; Writers Lazar and Jean Breschand; Cinematographer Roland Edzard; Length 70 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Wednesday 1 July 2020.

Two Short Documentaries by Lynne Sachs: The Last Happy Day (2009) and The Washing Society (2018)

One of the special focus strands of the Sheffield Doc/Fest online programme in 2020 was the experimental documentary filmmaker Lynne Sachs, who has an extensive body of work across a number of different documentary interests. I watched two of her films out of the handful made available (some of the rest are still online for festival attendees, so I am determined to catch up with them), and present reviews below — or, maybe I should say, more impressionistic observances as I cannot claim they are as deeply considered as I would like.

The Washing Society (2018)

This isn’t a long film, clocking in at about 45 minutes, but it’s a curious blend of documentary and staged fiction. It films a number of New York laundromats, showing their working environments and including some comments by a number of the workers. However, it starts with a Black woman speaking an historical text and then places her in the space of a laundromat opening for the day, and throughout the film her presence functions as a sort of historical commentary making clear the racialised nature of this work, which is somehow so intangible and invisible to so many people. As the film progresses, the testimonies start to become more like monologues, rather more clearly delivered by actors, itself eventually seguing into a musical performance piece on the machines themselves.

The Washing Society film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Lynne Sachs and Lizzie Olesker; Cinematographer Sean Hanley; Length 44 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Saturday 4 July 2020.

The Last Happy Day (2009)

I find it sometimes very easy to criticise documentaries for following a standard talking heads format, but of course Lynne Sachs doesn’t even approach anything resembling the clichés of the form. This medium-length piece does, however, use occasional on-screen captions to contextualise her story of a distant relative, the Hungarian Jew Sandor Lenard (aka Alexander Lenard), who fled shortly before the outbreak of World War II and eventually found himself in Brazil, where he undertook Latin translations, including of Winnie the Pooh (sorry, Winnie Ille Pu). That said, her experimental practice means that it’s difficult to pick out everything that’s going on here, and I imagine wider viewing of her oeuvre would help more in that respect, but there seems to be an idea of the painful ruptures of war and exile being healed at least somewhat by language, or perhaps the idea of translation (given that the language in question is hardly a widely shared one). It’s a family story, too, so children in Sachs’ own family appear on screen to read Lenard’s letters or comment on them (very eloquently, given their age). These are ideas that come out, not inaccessibly, but in a dense mixture of text and image and voice.

The Last Happy Day film posterCREDITS
Director Lynne Sachs; Cinematographers Sachs and Ethan Mass; Length 38 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Tuesday 21 July 2020.

Seekers (2020)

Among the films at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest online programme, there seemed to be a particular focus on indigenous voices and stories, whether Brazilian tribal people or the Native Americans at the heart of this documentary. It’s by a French director, so it’s an outsider’s perspective, but it’s still a beautiful and interesting film about different ways of living in an essentially white supremacist society.

The start and end of this documentary presents archival footage of Native Americans and the context of their modern existence at the hands of colonial interlopers, being forced into pedagogical systems that proclaim a “civilising” influence, or clashing against forces of the state protecting white supremacy. In some ways, I’d have been interested to see a film about that, but director Aurore Vullierme is an outsider (not unlike Chloé Zhao with her wonderful features set amongst Native Americans) and her story focuses on one man, who has just lost a local election. It’s a little unclear why exactly he’s the focus, and the sense you get as the film unfolds is somewhat elegiac, of a man who is passing down the baton of fighting for rights and to uphold the hopes of their nation to his children, as he’s pushed out by what is assumed to be corrupt forces. But really this is just a sort of hang-out documentary, giving a sense of his life and that of the community he is a part of, and on that level it’s engaging and likeable, even if it feels a little meandering at times.

Seekers film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Aurore Vullierme; Cinematographer Lucile Mercier; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Saturday 27 June 2020.

Elder’s Corner (2020)

There are no shortage of good music documentaries — even in the same film festival I’m covering this week on my blog (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects 2020) I saw Shut Up Sona and The Go-Go’s (and there were a few others besides that I missed). Nor is there any shortage of stories from the continent of Africa when it comes to music either — it’s an enormous place of course, with so many different cultures, languages and traditions — but even if African cinema may never have been given the chance to develop as much as that in the west, there has never been any lack of music. A few years ago I reviewed They Will Have to Kill Us First (2015), about music in Mali, for example, but this documentary deals with nearby Nigeria, which as the largest country in Africa has plenty of its own distinctive sounds and traditions.

Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, so you’d expect it would have a lot of stories, and when it comes to the arts, its music has provided the soundtrack to so many momentous events. Typically, it’s the work of Fela Kuti who gets the attention — and he is of course a force of nature with the kind of story filmmakers love to tell — but it’s great to see a film which largely focuses on other, less well-remembered, figures from the nation’s long history of music. In that respect, this reminds me a little of Faaji Agba (2015), which shares a few interviewees in common, though Elder’s Corner provides a lot more context. It’s told by an expatriate Nigerian, the writer/director/producer of this film (born in London, living in NYC), who is prompted to make the film by the nostalgia of listening to his friend’s record collection. We see these crates of amazing, obscure and well-loved records at the start, and it’s eye-opening, but the real journey is the one he takes in Nigeria, talking to a lot of the older generation, getting them to reminisce about the origins of Highlife music, of Juju and (yes, eventually) Afrobeat, and also to take about the changeable fortunes of the country, taking in the grand attempts to celebrate the country’s artistic heritage at FESTAC 1977 but also the governmental corruption that was behind that and its subsequent decline, but also the Biafran War before that, through which many of the musicians interviewed lived. As you can guess from the title, this is a film very much a film giving voice to the older generations of musicians, and the legacy they leave behind (a number of them have passed since interviewed for this film), and that’s a story that’s always worth celebrating.

Director/Writer Siji Awoyinka; Cinematographers Kay Hung, Oluwaseye Olusa, Awoyinka, Edel Kelly and Tunji Ladoja; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Wednesday 8 July 2020.

The Go-Go’s (2020)

There have already been a number of film festivals this year which have moved online, and while I saw a few films from We Are One and from the London Indian Film Festival, as two examples, I made much more of an effort with the online edition of Sheffield Doc/Fest, a festival I’d meant to visit in person for years and was hoping to this year. The 15 films I ended up seeing were just a small selection of what was available online (and I still have a few to catch up with, as some of the films have been extended beyond its 10 July end date), but there were still some excellent examples and I intend to devote this week to the films I saw at the Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects 2020 and, I hope, a little round-up of my overall impressions on Friday.

This is a very solid band documentary that doesn’t break any moulds, but instead is elevated by the inherent interest (to me) of its subjects. The film gets interviews with all the band, including the early members (who variously called it quits or were ousted), its former manager and the record label boss, as well as look-ins from members of The Specials and Madness. However, it essentially just covers their peak years up to the (first) break-up in 1985, with a brief addendum about solo careers, and a final plea for their inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That said, there’s plenty enough to be getting on with, including a few dramas, some relationships and a lot of drugs. Oh and of course their excellent music, which is featured both in the new wavey pop videos they made back at the start of MTV, as well as in live performances. I didn’t necessarily go away with any new understanding of fame or success, but it was good to spend time in their company and listen to their music with the contextualising commentary from the women themselves.

The Go-Go's film posterCREDITS
Director Alison Ellwood; Cinematographer Samuel Painter; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Friday 3 July 2020.

Shut Up Sona (2019)

Another film which premiered in the Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects online streaming this past month is this one about an Indian singer confronting sexism and prejudice. It’s a forthright film about an outspoken woman, and it documents what appears to be an ongoing struggle.

India is, of course, a huge country, and with that huge population comes an equally diverse range of viewpoints when it comes to women in the media. Or perhaps, it’s not so diverse, since it seems as if patriarchy continues to hold sway. We see the titular character (Sona Mohapatra), a singer in Hindi, often adapting songs from other religious traditions (most notably, Sufism), confront those who would marginalise her. She’s not by any means poor, and is married to a successful producer of Bollywood music, but the film shows her forthrightness in attacking those who would deny women (like her) access to big stages and national prominence. We see her reading out messages from supporters on Instagram alongside e-mails from clerics attacking her, and quotes flash up on-screen from politicians leading the fight against immorality (which in the case of Sona appears to be: shows a bit too much cleavage in her videos). Her outspoken nature seem to get her naturally into trouble, and there are hints towards some #MeToo fights she’s had online which (presumably for legal reasons) aren’t given much time here, but she’s clearly not going to be quiet and that seems like a good thing for society.

Shut Up Sona film posterCREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Deepti Gupta; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Wednesday 17 June 2020.

Niña mamá (Mother-Child, 2019)

My blog’s theme last week was documentaries screened at the Sheffield Doc/Fest because that festival has gone online with a select programme this month. I’ve already watched a number of films through their portal, including this Argentinian film about young mothers. I’ll try and write a round-up of my favourites when the festival has closed (in mid-July), but in the meantime I’ll be wrapping up my Argentina theme week tomorrow with the Global Cinema entry for that country.

A solid observational documentary which in soft and muted black-and-white shows young women (some extremely young indeed) talking to hospital gynaecologists about their pregnancies, the various issues they’ve had with spouses, whether they’ve had the support of their parents, and touching obliquely at least on their lives, and the futures they imagine for themselves. The unseen women doing the interviews gently ask about whether those who are carrying their children to term have considered “interrupting” their pregnancies (some of them have had more than one child, though all of them are teenagers), while others are going through that and express a complicated range of responses. Neither the interviewers nor the film makes any judgements on any of the women, but we get a sense perhaps of the focus of sex education and lack of funding available to the hospital and its staff. It’s not always sad, because there’s such a range of experiences on show, but it’s reflective on the situations too many young women find themselves in, and the way their (lack of) options can define so many lives.

Mother-Child film posterCREDITS
Director Andrea Testa; Writers Francisco Márquez and Testa; Cinematographer Gustavo Schiaffino; Length 66 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Thursday 11 June 2020.