Two 2018 Documentaries by Wang Bing: Dead Souls and Beauty Lives in Freedom

Two more documentaries about China from director Wang Bing, that unearth certain difficult periods in China’s history, most notably the re-education camps instituted by Mao in the 1950s.

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Women Filmmakers: Lucrecia Martel

Born in Argentina in 1966, Lucrecia Martel had a typically Catholic upbringing for the region, albeit such that she only enrolled in an ultra-Catholic school in order to study ancient languages. There she excelled in science and had intended further study in zoology, and even dabbled in farming, but was drawn into more practical studies in consideration of making a living, and bit by bit was drawn into filmmaking, in which occupation she was largely self-taught. She made short films and some documentaries for television during the 1990s, and has made only four feature films for cinema, but already in that time she has proven a keen eye for framing, and a laconic way of drawing out a story. Indeed, after bursting onto the international scene with La Ciénaga in 2001, she has been a model for successive Latin American women directors, if not for an entire strand of arthouse film production. Her films are not immediately accessible, and perhaps that explains her slow output (and the dizzying array of producers and sources of money her films sometimes list), but she also crafts them all very deliberately so perhaps the waits are worthwhile.

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Women Filmmakers: Annemarie Jacir

I was first exposed to Annemarie Jacir’s films via Wajib at the London Film Festival in 2017, but I’ve since caught up with her first two feature films. She was born in Bethlehem in 1974, but left to study in the United States. She has written poetry, but is now primarily known for her filmmaking, and is at the vanguard of Palestinian film culture, which I can only imagine is a precarious enterprise in itself (after all, her films gain their funding from many different sources from several different continents, making their co-production credits pretty extensive). Moreover, her work deals with the status of the displaced, whether historically (as in When I Saw You) or in a contemporary setting, and sometimes more directly confronts how it is to live under a state of occupation.

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Criterion Sunday 223: Maîtresse (1973)

I think there are some interesting things going on in this film, primarily in the way in which power dynamics are worked out, but behind it all there’s a very familiar, very masculine 1970s French way of looking at the world which reminds me a lot of Godard and his fellow travellers. Essentially, it’s about a semi-criminal young man (Gérard Depardieu) who finds himself drawn into the world of a professional dominatrix (Bulle Ogier). He has no money and comes to rely on her, while she makes her money by dominating submissive men, but he finds himself needing to express his own dominance in their power relationship. In some sense, he is enacting familiar patriarchal pattern of behaviour; I’m just not sure that the film is interested in exploring both their subjectivities, so much as wanting to find some compromise whereby she becomes more submissive to his will. That said, there’s a lot of interesting interplay between the two, and I at least don’t get the feeling that her sex work itself is being criticised. Ultimately, it feels very much like a period piece.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Barbet Schroeder; Writers Schroeder and Paul Voujargol; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Starring Bulle Ogier, Gérard Depardieu; Length 112 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 20 August 2018.

Criterion Sunday 153: Général Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait (General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait, 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.

As Mil e uma Noites (Arabian Nights, 2015)

Every so often a film comes along that gets a great consensus of positive critical reviews, but which I just can’t connect with, and Miguel Gomes’s austerity epic Arabian Nights is one such. It’s split into three volumes, probably for commercial reasons, and clearly states at the start of each that it’s not an adaptation of the Arabic folk tale collection, but merely uses its structure for a story about the economic vicissitudes of modern Portugal. Over its 6+ hours it builds up an intriguing blend of documentary realism and fabulist mythmaking, flitting between past and present (often with little distinction between eras even in the same scenes) as between fact and fiction. Sheherezade (Crista Alfaiate) is present, particularly in the third volume, but Gomes allows for myriad lengthy diversions, starting with a shipyard strike, but also including first-person testimony by impoverished labourers, and ending with bird-trappers who capture chaffinches and then compete their bird songs against one another. When he does feature a more overtly mythical register (as in the courtroom scene of Volume 2, or the seaside romantic diversions that open Volume 3), costumed actors are integrated into the modern world in sometimes surprising ways. It’s not that I find it to be a bad film, but it often tested my patience, and Gomes’s openness to surprising digressions and random juxtapositions can be both beguiling as much as distancing (there’s a propensity in volume 2 for interpolating naked women into the narrative, as one example). Perhaps if I should see all three volumes together in one long sitting I should find more to pull me in, for surely there’s no shortage of epic ambition to the film, and it’s this — that such a freewheeling dissociative attempt to grapple with urgent political issues got made at all — that’s most inspiring to me in the end.

Arabian Nights Volume 1 film posterArabian Nights Volume 2 film posterArabian Nights Volume 3 film posterCREDITS
Director Miguel Gomes; Writers Telmo Churro, Gomes and Mariana Ricardo (inspired by the folk tale collection ألف ليلة و ليلة‎ Kitab ʾalf layla wa-layla); Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom สยมภู มุกดีพร้อม; Starring Crista Alfaiate; Length 382 minutes in three parts: Volume 1, O Inquieto (The Restless One), 125 minutes; Volume 2, O Desolado (The Desolate One), 132 minutes; Volume 3, O Encantado (The Enchanted One), 125 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 23 April 2016 [Volume 1] and Saturday 30 April 2016 [Volume 2], and at ICA, London, Tuesday 10 May 2016 [Volume 3].

King Lear (1987)

It’s not uncommon for one to praise the ravishing cinematography even in films one doesn’t understand, but although there is some fine imagery in King Lear, by this point in Godard’s career — after a period in the 1970s co-authoring films with his partner Anne-Marie Miéville during which they seemingly resisted all kinds of ‘professionalism’ — it is Godard’s soundtracks which are most apt to be called beautiful. The distinctive reliance on texts now manifests as overlapping layers of spoken word, washing over the soundtrack like the Swiss lake by which this film is shot — primarily the recitation of Shakespeare by a stentorian voice, sometimes at the same time as Burgess Meredith’s Don Learo or Molly Ringwald’s Cordelia are speaking the same lines, though sounds of nature and of seagulls vie too for our attention from all sides. The plot, such as it is, has Peter Sellars (the theatre director, not the actor) as Shakespeare Jr. the Fifth seeking to rediscover his ancestor’s works after some vague Chernobyl-related calamity has befallen the planet. Godard himself steps in as a Shakespearean fool/savant, Professor Pluggy, with cables for a wig, farting ostentatiously, and muttering out of the side of his mouth. It’s not that this is exactly an adaptation of Shakespeare, so much as a play on the idea of authorship (“a cLEARing” as one of the film’s interchangeable subtitles has it), and a grand thumbing of the nose to great traditions (whether of cinema or theatre). It also looks forward a little bit to Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma with its use of overlapping film images and oblique commentary. One of Godard’s finest films of the 80s.

Screening alongside the feature is a short film from the year before, Meetin’ WA, in which Godard interviews Woody Allen, though it’s unclear the extent to which this is staged. The encounter is at times awkward, with Godard leading Allen down some rambling metaphorical lanes regarding the radioactivity of television and its effect on Allen’s own filmmaking, and when Allen’s answers don’t seem interesting to him, he fades out the volume or slows down the speed, or irises in (the film starts with an empty black hole over Allen’s head), or smash cuts to an intertitle and a burst of jazz. It’s a comic short, really, in which it’s Godard as the director who is the comedian rather than Allen as the subject.

King Lear (1987)CREDITS
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Monday 22 February 2016.

King Lear (1987)
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard (based on the play by William Shakespeare); Cinematographer Sophie Maintigneux; Starring Peter Sellars, Molly Ringwald, Burgess Meredith, Jean-Luc Godard; Length 90 minutes.

Meetin’ WA (1986)
Director Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographer Pierre Binggeli; Starring Woody Allen; Length 26 minutes.

Le meraviglie (The Wonders, 2014)

This is, to my mind, a very strange film. It’s the kind of film where I’m left at the end wondering if I’ve just seen some kind of masterpiece, or something no more than merely a little bit odd and quirky. I can’t pretend to be able to resolve that issue, but the fact that it leaves me uncertain as to my response is, I think, a good sign. Partly the effect is to do with the odd blend of realisms both neo- and magical. For the former, it’s not just that the film is Italian, but it’s in the rural setting, the story of a family ekeing out a meagre living against the odds, the unflashy cinematography and the unglamorous actors. The family is a stern and humourless father Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck), a caring but busy mother Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher) and four daughters, the eldest of whom is Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu). They live and work in a shabby old rundown property, where they raise bees and harvest them for honey, and there’s plenty of detail about the day-to-day grind of making and selling honey. However, at some point, Gelsomina learns about a TV contest to find the best local artisanal producer, and she enters her family (much to the anger of Wolfgang). And this is where the magical bit seeps in, the sense of otherworldiness coming not just from the TV host (Monica Bellucci) but in subtle little ways — of which the family’s pet camel is probably the most overtly humorous — all fully integrated into the neorealist progression of the narrative. However you take to these touches, it’s still at heart a coming of age story, and a family drama, and a sensitive depiction of rural apiculture in a capitalist world that wants to fetishise such production far more than effectively support it. It exerts a strange fascination — despite the domineering patriarch, it’s a film filled with female creativity and imagination (quite aside from all the core technical credits, it also features a fantastic performance from unaffected newcomer Lungu as the central character) — and it’ll probably be a film I want to return to in a few years. Maybe I’ll have grown into it by then.

The Wonders film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Alice Rohrwacher; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Maria Alexandra Lungu, Sam Louwyck, Alba Rohrwacher, Monica Bellucci; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Thursday 23 July 2015.

Argerich (aka Bloody Daughter, 2012)

The family documentary film is a popular genre, and if you have an interesting story to tell, a rewarding one — after all, being related to the subject gives you somewhat privileged access. In this case, photographer Stéphanie Argerich focuses her camera on her famous mother, the concert pianist Martha Argerich, who was born in Argentina but since relocated to Europe. Given the point of view, there’s plenty of detail about Argerich’s relationships and children (Stéphanie’s sisters, the first of whom was raised more or less as an orphan, and only re-entered their lives later on). Through it, one gets the sense of Martha’s single-minded focus on her art — something of an occupational hazard at this level of musical achievement — and her prickliness when she’s the centre of attention. Both as a public figure and as a mother she comes across as uncompromising, but not aloof. To be honest, not being a classical music fan, I didn’t know Argerich’s name, but the archival footage of her is quite astounding, and it seems from what we see that her playing has only become quicker and more forceful with age. However unforced and verité it appears from the handheld camerawork, it’s clearly a carefully structured film, and presents an interesting story from a well-connected viewpoint, incidentally imparting a sense of the peripatetic lifestyle of the concert pianist.

Argerich film posterCREDITS
Director Stéphanie Argerich; Cinematographers Argerich and Luc Peter; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 14 July 2015.

Sils Maria (Clouds of Sils Maria, 2014)

Aside from the pre-scheduled Criterion posts, there’s been slim pickings on this blog in recent weeks as I’ve been on holiday in the States and Canada, which means I’ve largely not been seeing films. However, I did catch up with one while over there. UPDATE: It has since been added to the Criterion Collection, so you see just how far I’ve strayed.


I’ve always had the sense from the infiltration of celebrity gossip into news coverage that Kristen Stewart has been underrated as an actor, apparently on the basis of, I don’t know, her lack of a sunny Californian disposition? It’s obviously a shallow criticism, as even if you’d only been aware of her since her turn in Twilight (2008), she’s already proved her acting mettle many times (my favourite being the 2010 musical biopic The Runaways). Clearly French director Olivier Assayas has been attentive, as he’s cast her alongside acting heavyweight Juliette Binoche, and Stewart very much holds her own (though perhaps it helps that Binoche is called upon to deliver much of her performance in English). It’s a classic self-reflexive European narrative about actors and acting, about ageing and egos and a sort of psychic transference between the older (Binoche) and younger generations (Stewart, as well as Chloë Grace Moretz in a small role). Stewart plays Valentine, the harried but largely unflappable PA to Binoche’s Maria, a well-known theatrical actor who is travelling to Zürich to deliver a tribute to the (now-deceased) director who discovered her when she was a teenager. There’s something about the way it all unfolds with its narrative ellipses, its teasing character linkages and its self-reflexivity about the craft of acting and cinema, not to mention the mountainous Swiss setting (the film’s title is taken from a notable cloud formation), which reminds me of the Swiss auteur Alain Tanner and a 1960s/70s tradition of this kind of story. Clouds of Sils Maria hints at the boundaries between the real and the fictive in a playful, literary and engaged way, but leaves us on a questioning note, unsure of exactly how much has changed for its title character and those women around her.

Clouds of Sils Maria film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Olivier Assayas; Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux; Starring Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at Cineplex Forum, Montréal, Wednesday 15 April 2015.