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I very much like the series of films that have been put together using the BFI’s vast archive, of which this 2018 release – by Paul Wright – is the latest. There’s something about the historical aspect, and the general strangeness of some of the footage (particularly from the earlier half of the last century) that appeals, as well as the fact that they serve as illuminating guides to British life and highlight some important 20th century social change, with regard to class, gender politics, leisure time, war, immigration, declining industry, etc.

Kim Longinotto’s Love Is All was a spirited run-through of romance in British cinema (scored, aptly, by crooner Richard Hawley); Benedikt Erlingsson’s The Show Of Shows examined circuses and other similar forms of entertainment with a soundtrack from Sigur Rós and Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson; and Penny Woolcock’s From The Sea To The Land Beyond was a powerful illustration of life lived at the coast, with British Sea Power re-purposing some of their earlier songs for the occasion. Wright’s film is, roughly speaking, about the countryside, and he uses the setting to explore aspects of the British psyche and society, pointedly depicting both a bucolic Utopia – indeed ‘Utopia’ is one of several intertitles used to split the film into specific segments or chapters – and a more nightmarish, psychedelic space that’s characterised by folk horror, disturbing or bizarre rituals, huge class and economic gulfs and plenty more besides. This one has been scored by Adrian Utley of Portishead and Will Gregory of Goldfrapp, though some traditional and atmospheric folk music makes the cut too.

I liked the score, overall, as it shifts and encompasses different styles of music, depending on the chapter, but it does begin to affect your interpretation of the footage a little too much for my liking. For example, the ominous-sounding thrum that accompanies film of Morris men dancing suggests a dark, menacing undertone to the action that is taking place, and while such dancers are certainly seen as being quirky today, I’m not entirely sure they represent British folk tradition at its weirdest or most threatening. But still, the music certainly helps to tie all of the assembled footage together, so I’m wary of complaining too much about it; it’s a soundtrack I would like to buy, but haven’t got round to yet.

While watching the film, I found that some of the dots that Wright joins together are a bit of a stretch; one example would be a section in which punk – really something I’d say was a preserve of more urban areas, particularly during its heyday – is linked to the underground raves and festivals that became emblematic of British outsider culture, and were later turned into massive cash-generating enterprises by some rural landowners. I guess there is a wider point being made here, perhaps about the way in which culture more recently has tended to trickle outwardly from cities, but it does seem a little unclear to me; and while there’s certainly a theme here about people escaping to the countryside to let themselves go – nude hippies and naturalists feature regularly throughout – any footage here that looks like it was made in a town or city seems oddly intrusive and out of place.

That said, part of the appeal of Arcadia is its oddness, the times when its rambling looseness and the accumulation of footage seems to build into or generate something greater, some repeated point about how strange British people are; although there is a coherence and organisation too, mostly thanks to the chapter-based structure. It is a restless work that is packed with ideas and there are many successfully forged links, while there is definitely a thrill to be had in going along with it and simply enjoying the sheer variety of archive material that Wright has uncovered and used. Perhaps it doesn’t matter all that much if some aspects are tied together more tightly than others.

I thought Arcadia is at its best when it is suggesting an underlying oddness existing within the countryside, but there is real breadth to the included footage: fox hunting, the beauty of the landscape and nature (as well as its harmfulness), farming, cheese-rolling, the gradual removal of services from village life – there is much to ponder in this deliciously offbeat amalgamation. It probably lands better with those who have experience of living in the UK and who will therefore pick up on some of the subtler suggestions, but I dare say if you have a more general interest in life anywhere there is something for you to enjoy. As it stands, it probably just about edges Frederick Wiseman’s thorough paean to the community services of the New York Public Library, Ex Libris, and Agnès Varda and JD’s warm study of art, ageing and people, Faces, Places, as my favourite documentary of 2018. (4.5)

Peter Jackson has been busy of late. The New Zealand director’s steampunk-inflected adaptation of the fantasy novel Mortal Engines will land this Christmas, while cinemagoers lucky enough to live close to a screening have recently been treated to his moving, fascinating documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, for which he has assembled and retouched archive footage of British soldiers that was recorded during the First World War.

The film was jointly commissioned by 14-18 NOW, an organisation set up to commemorate the centenary of Armistice Day, and the Imperial War Museum, the holders of the visual footage (audio recordings, made by the BBC after the war, also feature). As well as restorative work such as sharpening the images and conversion of the archive material to 3D, the director and his team have also colourised much of it, the switch from black and white to colour that occurs around ten minutes in being one of a few coups de cinema here; otherwise, little attention is drawn to the technical achievements that have taken place, which allows the viewer to focus more on the subject matter instead of the obvious prowess of Jackson’s team.

I’m not much of a fan of artificial colouring (though a black and white rendering of the world in the first place is no less artificial as a process) and I’m ambivalent about 3D more generally, but here it undoubtedly brings the men to life. We see them eagerly signing up to go to war, taking part in training exercises and then confronting the horrors of trench life at the Battle of the Somme. It is – was – a harrowing journey.

The conspicuous cameras that trundle before the men are often trained on large groups or smaller clusters, as opposed to individuals, and the camera operators were particularly drawn to the now-sharply-rendered faces of the soldiers, lingering in front of them. Typically, the men stare back at the lens, the result of their own fascination with a nascent technology; presumably most of the people we see here were being filmed for the first time in their lives. To bring the footage to life even more, Jackson’s expert lip-readers have figured out what the soldiers were saying, and actors have been employed to add their voices to the soundtrack; apparently much care has been taken on getting the right accents to tally with the regiments that are shown on screen. This is augmented by the aforementioned testimonies by soldiers that were recorded later, when the men had some literal and figurative distance from the events.

Such striving for authenticity – along with the technical prowess – makes this a fine attempt at enhancing a historic record, though of course the colouring will turn off some people, the 3D will turn off even more and its worth pointing out that the recollections of the soldiers cannot ultimately be relied upon (stress and time may mean that their testimonies are not 100% accurate).

That said, there is valuable insight here into the lives of British combatants (we only see dead or captured bodies of German counterparts, and never hear from survivors). The footage of life in the trenches is startling: the camera captures the nameless dead strewn around on the ground in No Man’s Land, shells constantly exploding nearby, rats everywhere and terrible unsanitary conditions (though there is something amusing about the line of men using the long-drops together, the ideas of privacy and comfort having long disappeared); but the awfulness of war contrasts considerably at times with the often upbeat mood of the men, who were eager to fight for their country. The film ends, oddly and ironically enough, by addressing their dismay at the end of the war. Many were unemployed and lost the sense of purpose they had while serving in the military; some men speak of the general lack of understanding when they returned home, with the general public unable to understand what they had been through. It may be 100 years too late, but this gripping, vital work does at least begin to address that issue. (5/5)

Cinemas in the UK have been – and still are – showing They Shall Not Grow Old with a recorded Q&A between critic and broadcaster Mark Kermode and Jackson, but the BBC is screening a 2D version on Sunday evening for those in the UK. (BBC2, Sunday 11 November, 9.30pm).

There’s a scene in Faces, Places, the new documentary film Agnès Varda has made in collaboration with photographer and mural artist JR, in which this ostensibly odd couple – a 65-year age gap exists between them – chat with a group of male French dock workers. It won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Varda’s work that she instinctively asks the men if she can meet their wives, and before long the two artists are introduced to the three relevant women, two of whom – like their husbands – work on the docks.

The basic premise of the film is that Varda and JR travel around France meeting people (generally those who live and/or work in rural or smaller communities), before taking their pictures and then printing large images that are subsequently flyposted onto buildings or large objects. Having met the three women, and feeling suitably inspired by them, Varda and JR ask them to pose for portraits and then decide to plaster the larger-than-life pictures onto a huge stack of cargo containers, with the women themselves eventually emerging from behind the doors of container stacked high at the very top. It’s an extremely powerful visual statement – made in conjunction with a small group of people who appear to work for JR – in a film that’s littered with them, and yet it’s also completely indicative of the film’s humanism, the makers’ genuine interest in ordinary working class people and the rather likeable way that they are lionised in ways that also brings attention to their surroundings and the histories of certain places.

For most of the film Varda and JR travel around in his van, which has a large-scale printer adapted to fit in the back. They meet farmers, people from former mining communities, retirees and young children along the way. As they do, the documentary slowly evolves into a work that’s also about the power of images, as well as society, the influence of political decisions taken elsewhere, mortality and the act of seeing. One thread that’s weaved throughout pertains to Varda’s deteriorating eyesight, while in another Varda regularly chastises the younger man for his desire to ‘hide’ behind his sunglasses at all times, something that occasionally causes a small degree of friction between the two. (JR, like the English artist Banksy, places much value on his own anonymity.)

Despite the odd minor clash between Varda and JR – she quickly puts him in his place when he patronises her – Faces, Places is very much a feelgood film: the two artists make for an extremely sympathetic, likeable duo, and the obvious differences between them – age, height, etc – soon become irrelevant in the face of their shared respect for and interest in others. As well as their time together talking to people – which sometimes recalls Varda’s earlier The Gleaners & I – we’re treated to lots of footage of the pair travelling together, hanging out in Paris and even dashing across the Louvre in a light-hearted homage to Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à Part.

It comes as a surprise, then, when Godard himself casts a rather unfortunate shadow on the film late on. JR arranges a surprise visit to the house of the notoriously reclusive director, who was one of Varda’s New Wave colleagues and someone who she considers a long-term friend, even though she hasn’t seen him in years, but the meeting and the trip becomes something of a non-event — grinding uncomfortably to a halt as a result of what appears to be mean-spirited pettiness on the part of Godard, perhaps driven by a rather unfortunate mixture of insecurity and thoughtlessness. Given what we’ve seen before it seems like a particularly cruel act to reduce Varda to tears, but her positive, forward-thinking outlook is irrepressible, and the male director’s actions ultimately seem like an irrelevance as she figuratively picks herself up, dusts herself down and gets on with her life. The simple fact is that nobody can stop the positivity that radiates from Varda and from this wonderful film, surely one of 2018’s finest. (4.5/5)

A decent, competently-made documentary by Brendan Toller about the life of Danny Fields, a mover and shaker – here described as a ‘connector’ – in the American music scene for most of the 1960s and 1970s. Your enjoyment will probably depend on your interest in the cultural stories of the era, as the film describes in reasonable detail Danny’s time spent with Andy Warhol and The Factory in-crowd, his life as a pop magazine editor, his subsequent years as a talent scout with Elektra – he says he’s the guy that told the label to release The Doors’ Light My Fire as a single – and his long-standing friendships with Nico, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, David Bowie and more. He also managed The Ramones during their early years, so you can see there’s a lot of rock mythology to fit in here, but Toller does a decent job of paying as much time as possible to it all. Fields is an intelligent guy with a varied career behind him, so his interviews are enjoyable to listen to, and the other talking heads are engaging, interesting figures in their own right: Judy Collins, Iggy, Lenny Kaye, Wayne Kramer, Alice Cooper, Jonathan Richman and more all say nice things about the subject. The animations that are used occasionally feel a bit cheap and scrappy, though maybe that’s understandable for a Kickstarter-funded project. (***)

This Chinese documentary/art film by Zhao Liang addresses the large-scale environmental destruction and landscape alteration that is currently taking place in Inner Mongolia, showing the work carried out at huge mines and smelting plants as well as the wide-ranging costs and effects that heavy industry is having on the area and its people. It’s a quiet, slow film – Zhao lets his striking images do the talking, for the most part – and it focuses on several different conneccted issues: first the changing of the landscape through explosions and other mining activities; second the displacement of farmers and others who have relied on the land for their livelihoods for many years; third the conditions that the workers in these giant mines must endure on a daily basis; and fourth the physical toll the work takes on them, with many young men and women eventually succumbing to respiratory illnesses and worse. There is beautiful photography of the landscape, as well as the occasional smoky, hellish image of men working near molten material or struggling to operate in other hot, dusty areas, while Zhao also studiously films the sweaty, exhausted faces and ravaged bodies of miners and other workers in close-up. Juxtaposed with these are calmer, more distant shots in which a naked figure appears in the foetus position somewhere in the landscape, while the image fragments like a cracked mirror and a voiceover discusses the land in a solemn, poetic fashion; other figures occasionally appear with a mirror strapped to their backs, in which the filmmaker is briefly glimpsed. These elements add a little mystery, but the overall message is clear: the working conditions are unacceptably poor and the extent of the mining operations can be described as callous or unnecessarily rapacious at best. Zhao ends proceedings by filming guerrilla-style in one of China’s many ‘ghost cities‘, evidently perplexed and concerned about the Chinese government’s plans to move hundreds of millions of countryside inhabitants into its many brand-new urban areas. For what reason, and at what cost? The combination of stylish photography with the industrial subject matter recalls Jennifer Baichwal’s collaborative film with photographer Edward Burtynsky, Manufactured Landscapes, though there is greater empathy with workers here and more of an emphasis on social issues.

Directed by: Zhao Liang.
Written by: Sylvie Blum, Zhao Liang, Weiping Cui, Chinnie Ding.
Cinematography: Zhao Liang.
Editing: Fabrice Rouaud.
Music: Huzi, Alain Mahé.
Running Time: 95 minutes.
Year: 2016.

Crystal Moselle’s documentary The Wolfpack focuses on the seven teenage siblings of the Angulo family (though it’s primarily about the six brothers and less so the sole sister), who were all home-schooled in New York City and kept apart from the outside world for most of their young lives. Their father Oscar held the only key to the family’s apartment, and for many years he stopped the children and his wife Susanne from coming-and-going as they pleased; one of the brothers wistfully points out during an interview here that in some years the kids didn’t get to go outside at all. It’s understandable, then, that their development has been stunted to a certain degree, and part of the film shows the brothers tentatively getting to grips with the outside world, now that they’re allowed to leave the building. Somewhat disappointingly Moselle’s film doesn’t specifically reveal why the situation has changed, although we do discover that the eldest brother Mukunda disobeyed his father in 2010 and explored the local neighbourhood in a mask before being arrested by police, which seems to have been the catalyst for change.

Yet this is also a film about films, to a certain extent. During their years of confinement the Angulo children developed an enyclopaedic love of cinema, and home movie footage incorporated here suggests that a certain amount of creativity was encouraged within the family’s Lower East Side apartment; we see the kids studying movies such as The Dark Knight, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction et al, before creating their own screenplays, props and costumes, and enacting their own versions of these perennial favourites. The short clips are oddly fascinating, encompassing shootouts in the hall and car chases in the bedroom, with great attention paid to detail; the re-staging of the scene in Pulp Fiction in which Jules and Vincent clear blood and bits of brains from their car shows how seriously the boys were about their joint hobby, and there are some wonderful DIY elements to the productions, such as Mukunda’s Batman costume, which looks the part even though it’s made out of painted cereal boxes and torn-up yoga mats.

Understandably cinema is presented as a means of escape, though in actual fact the films also become indicative of the kids’ captivity, as they’ve all been watched indoors on a TV screen, and it looks like DVDs have been used as a means to keep the boys docile; this only really hits you when you see them going to an actual theatre for the first time, filled with excitement. Unfortunately the documentary doesn’t really offer much in the way of insight beyond this. The filmmaker has been criticised for not pushing the father of the family hard enough during her interviews, and as a result Oscar Angulo isn’t taken to task for his controlling behaviour or the physical abuse endured by Susanne (this is mentioned only briefly), but in Moselle’s defence it’s possible her access would have been revoked had she taken a more obtrusive, aggressive presence. You’re left with a fascinating film that is almost totally reliant on its story, which is fine, but I can see why people experienced a degree of frustration as a result of any passivity. It may be a simplistic way of looking at things, but the documentarian’s first job is to report back on what she has found, and she has done.

Directed by: Crystal Moselle.
Starring: Bhagavan Angulo, Govinda Angulo, Jagadisa Angulo, Krsna Angulo, Mukunda Angulo, Narayana Angulo.
Cinematography: Crystal Moselle.
Editing: Enat Sidi.
Music:
Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans, Aska Matsumiya.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
89.
Year:
2015.

4 Comments

I’ve always enjoyed reading articles written by Mark Cousins, the Belfast-born critic, presenter and filmmaker, but this is the first documentary of his that I’ve watched. From what I can gather his films are often concerned with people and places as much as they’re concerned with the history of cinema, and his interests combine and overlap smartly here: A Story Of Children And Film is a documentary that offers insight into child psychology as well as being an illuminating examination of film technique, and Cousins is also an authoratitive and interesting narrator throughout. He uses footage of his niece and nephew to examine behavioural patterns of children, and incorporates film shot during a trip to the Isle of Skye as a jumping off point in terms of examining the imagination of kids and their many flights of fancy. However, the vast majority of the documentary is made up of footage taken from 53 films (and 25 different countries) to illustrate his points, during which Cousins commentates on the feelings of child characters as well as the use of lenses, camera angles, soundtracks, framing devices, colours, themes, staging, the proximity of actors to the camera and much, much more, all of which are techniques and ideas that depict or make us think about children in different ways. The range of films covered is diverse and shows off the director’s extensive knowledge of cinema, with well-known American works such as E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and The Night Of The Hunter sitting next to barely-known releases that look every bit as fascinating, such as Erkki Karu’s Finlandia and Karel Kachyna’s Long Live The Republic. Cousins’ ideas are clearly-presented and well thought out, his infectious enthusiasm makes this a joy to watch, and I guarantee that anyone who watches it will benefit from the man’s deep understanding of cinema.

Directed by: Mark Cousins.
Written by: Mark Cousins.
Cinematography: Marc Bénoliel.
Editing: Timo Langer.
Certificate:
PG.
Running Time:
106 minutes.
Year:
2014.

3 Comments