Sonita (2015)

This week I’m covering documentaries which screened at the Sheffield Doc/Fest in the past (this year’s programme is online, and taking place this month), and the 2016 winner of the Youth Jury Award was this film about an Afghani/Iranian rapper who left to pursue her musical dreams and now finds herself a de facto activist against child weddings.


A sweet and likeable film about a young Afghani woman living in Tehran, Sonita Alizadeh سونیتا علیزاده, whose family want to sell her as a bride but she has different ideas. Specifically of course, as documented by the film crew who are following her, she wants to be a rapper. Along the way she drags the director into her plans and things take a different turn from what we expect. The film gives a strong sense of the intersection of tradition and patriarchal violence, and from a Q&A at the screening afterwards, Sonita’s dreams after the film were of becoming a lawyer and working against child marriage, so that’s pretty great too.

Sonita film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami رخساره قائم مقامی; Cinematographers Behrouz Badrouj بهروز بدروج, Ali Mohammad Ghasemi علی محمد قاسمی, Mohamad Hadadi محمد حدادی, Arastoo Givi ارسطو گیوی, Parviz Arefi, Torben Bernard, Ala Mohseni; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at Ritzy, London, Friday 11 March 2016.

Chamissos Schatten (Chamisso’s Shadow, 2016)

Ulrike Ottinger is a filmmaker who came out of the 1970’s New German Cinema, making distinctive and odd films like Madame X and Ticket of No Return, before moving on to film a number of works in Mongolia and the furthest east, where she has shown a huge amount of interest in ethnography. This film fits in with that, and while it is in a sense a travelogue, it’s also very much a film about the way that history is latent in the present cultures of the Bering Sea, and the continuum of practices since the 18th century (when some of the texts she reads over these images are taken from). History, then, is indivisible from present-day life, and undoubtedly will continue to be for many generations.


An epic ethnographic documentary in four parts, this covers the cultures and people living around the Bering Sea, both on the Alaskan and Russian sides. As you might expect from the running length it does so in some detail, and as suggested by the title, it also links in historical perspectives. Specifically these come in the form of texts written by naturalist Georg Steller (who accompanied Bering on his exploits), then a century later by Adelbert von Chamisso, a poet and botanist, as well as a little bit from James Cook. However, it’s director Ulrike Ottinger’s voice and cinematic style which dominates the film, though in a respectful way, observing and allowing the people of the region to move about their lives and tell stories when they feel compelled.

It’s difficult to sum it all up in a short review, but the sense I got was of a continuity between Steller in the 18th century and the modern scenes, as a lot of the same practices and customs take place that he described, even if political changes have meant movements of the populations and the closure of the borders between the two nations (which come closest at the top of the world, between the Big and Little Diomede Islands, between which also runs the International Date Line). A lot of the shots of the expanse of this wilderness are breathtaking, but it’s in the simple details too that the film shines, in just pointing the camera at the people, and if some of the sequences seem too long for comfort (some hunters skinning and cutting up a seal), others you feel could go on for an entire chapter (the indigenous people demonstrating their dances was a particular highlight).

Chamisso's Shadow film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Ulrike Ottinger (based on texts by Adelbert von Chamisso and Georg Steller); Length 720 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 24 May 2020.

Criterion Sunday 322: “The Complete Mr. Arkadin”: Mr. Arkadin (aka Confidential Report, 1955)

This Criterion release features three versions of the title film: the European release as Confidential Report which is the one I’ve reviewed below, the “Corinth” cut with some different footage, and a reconstructed cut especially for the Criterion release, which purports to be the fullest and truest to Welles’s original intentions. As I do not (yet) have the Criterion edition of the film, I have not been able to review this cut, but I shall revisit it at such time as I am able to, and add to the review below.


Like any Welles film, or at least like all too many of them, this exists in multiple versions. I watched the European edit which was released under the title Confidential Report and it is, as you might expect, splendidly bonkers, careening around its mystery thriller plot with wild abandon. Welles, of course, plays the larger-than-life title character (well, the title character in the original title of the film), a large bearded fellow with a past that he claims not to know, or is trying actively to cover up, in murderous ways… except that chisel-jawed Robert Arden (as small-time crook Guy van Stratten) is onto him. There’s no shortage of stylish shooting, with all kinds of Dutch angles and scattershot dialogue propelling the drama forward. Perhaps this isn’t the finest version of the film that exists, and I hope at least to watch some of the others eventually, but even a badly recut Welles film is still a fine experience; there’s only so much that an editor can do to his idiosyncratic use of space.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Orson Welles (based on radio scripts for The Lives of Harry Lime by Ernest Bornemann and Welles); Cinematographer Jean Bourgoin; Starring Robert Arden, Orson Welles, Paola Mori, Patricia Medina, Akim Tamiroff; Length 98 minutes [as Confidential Report].

Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Wednesday 3 June 2020 (and originally on VHS at home, Wellington, October 1999).

Monos (2019)

As far as revolutionary cinema goes, Monos is very much more about capturing a mood, an intensity to being a guerrilla in the jungle, rather than trading in any particular or specific history. It’s more of a mood piece, and it worked (for me) very well, although critical opinion I’ve seen has certainly been divided. It’s probably not the exemplar of a ‘cinema of resistance’, but it’s about revolutionaries and the idea of resistance.


As an experience of a film, I really liked this. It has a dreamy intensity to it, which starts out as if amongst the legionaries in Beau travail albeit situated in a mountainous and muddy jungle terrain (rather than the heat of Claire Denis’s film) and with teenage revolutionaries in a sort of Lord of the Flies-type dystopia. The Latin American setting and the guerrilla-style warfare that is being undertaken suggests that they are fighting against state suppression and possibly some kind of American military-industrial nexus of capitalist interests, but honestly I’m just reading all that in based on what I’ve seen of South American liberationist history (as it has been portrayed on film at least), and no specifics are ever touched upon here, undoubtedly quite intentionally. However, it has such a concrete sense of place, and evokes such a tangible mood through the movement of the actors in the setting, and the throbbing Mica Levi score, that it achieves something that feels properly cinematic, though perhaps on reflection it’s more of a suggestion of cinema than something fully achieved. What it does evoke is a scenario that could as easily be science-fiction, making it more Hunger Games than Apocalypse Now. Ultimately it feels like more of a cautionary tale about what happens when trust breaks down amongst a group than about any specific socio-political idea, with the curiously gender-non-specific character of Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura) a particular highlight for me. It must have been an intense shoot.

Monos film posterCREDITS
Director Alejandro Landes; Writers Landes and Alexis Dos Santos; Cinematographer Jasper Wolf; Starring Julianne Nicholson, Moisés Arias, Sofia Buenaventura, Julián Giraldo; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Wednesday 13 November 2019.

Corpo celeste (aka Heavenly Body, 2011)

Another film you won’t currently find on Mubi, but this debut feature by a major modern filmmaker is just one of the types of strands Mubi regularly presents. In fact, it’s one of the places I’ve been most fortunate to catch up with the early films of important contemporary filmmakers. As just one example, right now (i.e as of 25 March 2020) you can find Neighbouring Sounds, the debut film by Kleber Mendonça Filho (of Aquarius and Bacurau fame).


I loved Rohrwacher’s latest film Happy as Lazzaro and seeing her first feature film reminds me that a lot of what I loved there is present in all her work. It doesn’t feel heavy-handed at all to me, but rather a very gentle coming of age narrative, about a young girl (Yle Vianello) who starts to really get a sense not so much of adulthood itself, as of the disappointments that this world she’s entering can present, specifically around religion. She has come to Italy, a devoutly Catholic country, after a period of having grown up in Switzerland, and finds the church there to be somewhat disappointing, and the classes she attends just a little bit lacking in serious intent. While Santa, one of the lay women who runs the classes, fusses over the very much middling priest (Salvatore Cantalupo), our heroine Marta sits there impassively watching and judging all the nonsense that is passed off as being part of faith. It’s true that some of the symbolic reaches the film goes for are pretty strong — the crucifix mounted to the roof of the priest’s car as he speeds around the mountain ridges feels like one such — but overall this film prefers to focus on the quiet and melancholy experienced by Marta as she navigates this world.

Corpo Celeste film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Alice Rohrwacher; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Yle Vianello, Salvatore Cantalupo, Anita Caprioli; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Wednesday 15 January 2020.

Lazzaro felice (Happy as Lazzaro, 2018)

As I do a few weeks’ of some of my favourite films I’ve seen this year, ones I haven’t already covered, I can’t possibly miss out this Italian film, which much to my surprise was one of my favourites and is sure to do well in the end-of-year polls (at least, in my one).


I never much connected with The Wonders (2014), though I felt that was largely down to me (there’s a lot that I liked about the film even so), so it’s with some relief that Alice Rohrwacher’s follow-up film really grabbed me and never let go. It’s unassuming in its way, with that 16mm photography by Hélène Louvart imparting an almost nostalgic air to proceedings, with the frame’s gently rounded edges and dust accumulating around the edge of the image (all of which is appropriate, perhaps, given the sort of timeless, cut-off, rural setting in which the film opens). Yet this is no rustic peasant drama, and pretty soon the film starts to take turns that make it feel like a fairy tale or a morality play, and by the time our wide-eyed Lazarus figure is reborn (played by Adriano Tardiolo), it starts to take on the feeling of an almost religious parable.

There’s a lot going on here — mostly revolving around themes of exploitation of labour and of compassion — but there are moments of pure lyrical poetry such as are rare in any films, a blending of image, movement, music and sound that elevate individual moments somehow, perceptibly, into a rapturous ecstasy (before returning to the squalor of everyday life). Which isn’t to say it’s a film that’s all off in the clouds like a Malick picture, because it always has that neo-realist feel, it’s just that even through these down-and-out characters, the grime amongst which they live, the few opportunities they’ve been given in life, there’s also something transcendentally cinematic about the storytelling, and a search for some kind of meaning that puts it among some of the more spiritual films I’ve seen (and I suppose makes it appropriately Italian).

Maybe I’m putting too much on it; it’s a film whose abiding mystery is such that I can’t quite express what I particularly loved about it. Generally, too, I am suspicious of any films that may make claims on some kind of vaunted artistic status (though I don’t think the film itself is pushing that), but this really does feel special.

Happy as Lazzaro film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Alice Rohrwacher; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Adriano Tardiolo, Alba Rohrwacher, Nicoletta Braschi, Sergi López; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Tuesday 9 April 2019.

Sátántangó (1994)

Aside from Lav Diaz‘s work, there are few long films in recent years more mythical than Bela Tarr’s seven-hour Hungarian black-and-white Sátántangó, a film loved by those who’ve seen it and which represents something of a badge of honour among most cinephiles. I’ve not (yet) seen it in a cinema, but every few years seems to bring an opportunity to do so. It’s now 25 years old.


I realise this is accepted by many as a pinnacle of a certain kind of filmmaking, the ne plus ultra of slow cinema, and it is very good. Great, even. I’d been meaning to watch it every since seeing Werckmeister Harmonies a couple of times back in 2000, but it was still pretty mythical back then. It takes a small Hungarian village community as its setting, as charismatic charlatan Irimiás (Mihály Vig) comes to town, but those who know the film probably know this. I’d just finished reading the novel and I’m impressed by how closely it cleaves to that, but when you have seven hours of running time to play with, fidelity to the source is easier to achieve. The cinematography is luminously monochrome, or rather just as often drenched in bleak melancholic half-light, but that’s appropriate. It’s about people who are led, ceding their power to an authority figure, like an allegory of the citizens to a kleptocratic state, or sheep — cows, perhaps, given the open shot — led by wild promises of secession into their own doom but profiting the political classes (no, nothing on my mind right now). It’s all there, all as slow as you want it, long tracking shots down endless roads, characters walking off to the horizon, scenes that pause so the characters can grab a snack or go to the loo (a provocation to any cinema audience). This is a great film for those who like its thing (I do), but I’ll want to catch it at the cinema some day before I make any grandiose pronouncements beyond that.

Sátántangó film posterCREDITS
Director Béla Tarr; Writers Tarr and László Krasznahorkai (based on the novel by Krasznahorkai); Cinematographer Gábor Medvigy; Starring Mihály Vig, Putyi Horváth, László Lugossy; Length 432 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 7 January 2017.

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.

Continue reading “Two 2018 Documentaries by Wang Bing: Dead Souls and Beauty Lives in Freedom”

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.

Continue reading “Women Filmmakers: Lucrecia Martel”

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.

Continue reading “Women Filmmakers: Annemarie Jacir”