Posts tagged ‘Documentary’

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.
Running Time:
106 minutes.


This contemplative documentary by Gianfranco Rosi – a Golden Bear winner at the recent Berlin Film Festival – examines the current European migrant crisis, paying particular attention to the way that it impacts (or doesn’t impact) on the small community on Lampedusa, an Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea that is nearer to the north African coastline than it is to its own country’s mainland. Due to its proximity to Libya in particular, Lampedusa has become a point of entry for migrants and refugees seeking passage into Europe, and during the past 20 years around 400,000 people have landed on the island, with many of those processed by the Lampedusa Immigrant Reception Centre (the vast majority within the last 24 months, at the time of writing). However the journey from Libya to Lampedusa is hazardous, and during that same period more than 17,000 people have died trying to make the crossing. It has become the most dangerous migrant route in the world, with those transported on packed, poorly-constructed boats suffering from severe malnutrition and dehydration at sea. As this documentary illustrates many also suffer serious chemical burns when fuel stored in jerry cans mixes with water before coming into contact with skin. On Lampedusa a doctor – one of the few people in this documentary who talk to the director and address the problem at hand – reveals his frustration and his sorrow at not being able to save more lives.

In addition to the doctor, Rosi observes and films others who have direct contact with the migrants as they arrive, such as those who carry out rescue missions on the water and others who process the new arrivals while dressed in hazmat suits. He also (briefly) films the day-to-day activities of migrants living temporarily in the reception centre, while all of this is contrasted with the quotidien life of the permanent residents of Lampedusa, some of whom rely on the sea for their livelihoods and have apparently become numbed by the sheer number of people that have passed through their island. In particular Rosi keeps returning to a man who dives for sea urchins, a local DJ who plays wartime records – including the song that gives the film its evocative title – and a young boy named Samuele who wants to be a fisherman when he grows up. The latter is an endearing kid who roams free on the island, in direct contrast to the cooped-up migrants, and when we see him playing imaginary war games it’s a reminder to the audience that many of the island’s visitors are fleeing real, ongoing conflicts. When we see him attack a bird at night with his home-made catapult it’s an act of childish cruelty, but later we see a change of heart, and he displays a tenderness towards one of the small, unprotected creatures which is more in keeping with the caring adults that appear in the film. The director’s use of Samuele as a symbol for the Lampedusan community’s relationship with the migrants – and possibly Europe more generally – reaches its pinnacle when a visit to the doctor reveals that he has a lazy eye: he can and can’t see what’s happening in plain sight right in front of him, or – put more simply – he’s turning a blind eye to it.


Samuele and his catapult, an object that symbolises warfare in old Europe

At times it’s an aesthetically-pleasing documentary, despite some of the harrowing material shown. Rosi is sympathetic to the plight of the migrants and he films any dead bodies or injured people in a way that is straightforward and respectful. When concentrating on the land itself, or the community living on it, Fire At Sea becomes no less poignant but is infused with much more in the way of beautiful cinematography. (In particular it’s the beauty of the island that is highlighted, as per Luca Guadagnino‘s A Bigger Splash, another recent film set on Lampedusa which also briefly explored its role in the migrant crisis.) Rosi also variously depicts the calmness (and the dangerous swells) of the sea, with some shots included here that could have been lifted directly from Lucile Hadžihalilović‘s recent film Evolution. In terms of the content, there are no answers presented here to the problem, and those looking to hear the opinions of Italian residents on the matter will probably be disappointed. You’ll have to look elsewhere for straight-to-camera accounts from the people who have made the journey by boat, too, but Rosi’s documentary doesn’t feel at all incomplete or lacking; it’s quite insightful about life in this remote community, which serves as an outpost of a kind of lost, old Europe, and it examines the difficult work undertaken by some Lampedusans while never neglecting to acknowledge the suffering of many of the migrants.

Directed by: Gianfranco Rosi.
Written by: Gianfranco Rosi, Carla Cattani.
Cinematography: Gianfranco Rosi.
Editing: Jacopo Quadri.
Certificate: 12A.
Running Time: 113 minutes.
Year: 2016.

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This documentary about the 1989 disaster at Sheffield Wednesday’s ground Hillsborough – in which 96 fans of the football team Liverpool tragically lost their lives while attending an FA Cup semi-final match – was originally made in 2014. It has recently been updated to reflect the findings of the latest in a series of long-running inquests, as well as a jury-led ruling that the 96 who died were unlawfully killed, thereby exonerating the behaviour of fans on the day after a 27-year-long campaign by the families of victims. (Among other things South Yorkshire Police – along with the Conservative government at the time – had stated that the blame for the disaster lay with drunk and ticketless fans who had forced their way in and caused the fatal crush; this has since been proven to be untrue.) Director Daniel Gordon’s 120 minute film is exhaustive and upsetting, mixing interviews with surviving family members, campaigners and policemen who were working at the ground on the day with archive footage of the disaster and the events which followed. There are too many gripping and moving accounts to list here, so suffice it to say you’re left with plenty of respect for the family members and others who have fought tirelessly for close to three decades for justice, and admiration for the actions of some of the policemen, some of whom are still traumatised by what they saw. Gordon’s film is meticulous in its re-telling of the past 27 years, and quitely damns the figures and institutions that were behind the lies. The one moot point for me is that Hillsborough includes dramatic recreations of past conversations or incidents, which is a device I often view suspiciously or feel is unnecessary, particularly within documentaries that are otherwise concerned with cold, hard facts.

Directed by: Daniel Gordon.
Cinematography: Nick Bennett.
Editing: Andy Worboys.
Music: Tim Atack.
Certificate: Unknown.
Running Time: 121 minutes.
Year: 2016 (originally released in 2014).


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The Palio di Siena is a horse race that takes place twice every year, in July and August, with the competing horses representing ten of the Italian city’s 17 neighbourhoods. The race itself circles the Piazza del Campo – Siena’s stunning town square – and it’s a hotly-contested event, with jockeys exposing themselves to abuse from the massed crowds (not to mention one another) and some even being badly beaten by disgruntled supporters in the wake of defeat (though this seems fairly trivial next to the treatment of the horses, who are ridden into walls and are even brutally whipped in the face by jockeys). The races that took place during 2013 are covered by this interesting documentary by Anglo-Italian director Cosima Spender, who concentrates on two jockeys in particular, one a seasoned champion who is on the verge of breaking a long-held record for Palio victories, the other a young pretender who was once the master’s apprentice.

If the construct seems a little forced, and a little predictable as a sporting tale, Spender’s decision to follow the two men does at least pay dividends as the races play out. There’s no great rivalry between these two jockeys (other than the fact they’re both determined and want to win), but there’s more than enough spilling from the (mainly male) residents of the different boroughs, who march through the city in their respective colours and sing songs about having ‘the biggest cocks’ and such like. As that would suggest, the races attract a certain degree of machismo, and there’s plenty of footage here of random men running onto the track in front of horses (which kind of reminds me of the running of the bulls), and quite a bit of male peacockery by two former champions, both of whom suggest that the Palio was tougher to win in their day. One – now a trainer – even tells a young jockey that he will only win if he spends less time on Facebook and grows bigger balls (which is ridiculous, as everyone knows it’s impossible to spend less time on Facebook). Spender’s approach is to stand back and let some of these men make slight fools of themselves, though there’s an underlying appreciation for the sincerity of those involved, and a certain understanding of the passion that fuels the race organisers, participants and the emotional spectators.

One of the other interesting aspects of the Palio is the way that underhand deals and finances seem to play a big part; bribery of jockeys is commonplace, and a potential way to win that’s actively encouraged rather than stamped out. Unlike most horse racing it allows a defeated jockey and his supporters to pin the blame for a loss on something that is beyond their control, rather than acknowledging that they were bettered by a superior jockey/horse combination; again, it’s possible that this takes place so that, ultimately, swelling male pride isn’t routinely punctured by crushing defeat. The director seems fascinated by these financial dealings, though sadly she never seems to get to the root of it all, as the trainers, jockeys and others filmed refuse to give much away other than enigmatic smiles and shrugs. There’s no attempt to compare it to corruption within wider Italian society, either, which might have been an interesting angle to explore, even if it’s a little stereotypical and possibly beyond the scope of the documentary. Anyway, with the sun-dappled Tuscan countryside and the glorious Sienese architecture Palio looks the part, and the races themselves incorporate exciting slow-motion sequences, so the viewer can really follow the ups and downs as it all unfolds. Animal lovers will be upset by the treatment of the horses, as mentioned above, and it’s a shame that Spender doesn’t address this fully. How on earth can the jockeys treat the animals in this way after spending so long with them during training?

Directed by: Cosima Spender.
Written by: John Hunt, Cosima Spender.
Cinematography: Stuart Bentley.
Editing: Valerio Bonelli.
Music: Alex Heffes.
Certificate: 12A.
Running Time: 91 minutes.
Year: 2015.

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Penny Woolcock’s documentary From The Sea To The Land Beyond is a treasure trove of archive footage detailing life on Britain’s coast. It’s edited with intelligence and it features an atmospheric score by the band British Sea Power, who really seem to have put some thought into the way their songs should match the images and subject matter, reworking old material to suit certain themed segments. I’ve seen the film before, but it’s so packed with interesting footage it easily stands up to a re-watch, and I dare say I’ll happily sit through it again one day. This time round I was struck by the strength of two passages in particular: one relating to lifeboat crews, and one featuring foreign soldiers as they arrive in the UK prior to fighting in the Second World War (or perhaps they’ve already fought, but they don’t look dishevelled, injured or exhausted, so I very much doubt that’s the case). Also, I’d previously missed one of the overarching messages of the film, which is that despite the rapid social change that has affected the coast during the past hundred years or so – and the people who live and work there – much of it stays the same over time. Very little can date the footage of the sea, the rocks, the birds, the cliffs and the waves, except perhaps the film stock that was used.

Directed by: Penny Woolcock.
Editing: Alex Fry, Penny Woolcock.
Music: British Sea Power.
Certificate: U.
Running Time: 74 minutes.
Year: 2012.

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Jennifer Peedom’s acclaimed documentary Sherpa focuses on the working lives of the Sherpa people, specifically those who famously assist foreign mountaineering parties as they attempt to climb Mt. Everest in Nepal. Peedom and her crew set out to make a documentary about the 2014 climbing season from the Sherpas’ perspective, partly because the 2013 season had been marred by a series of confrontations between the Nepalese people and the foreign climbers (one of which is captured on film here). In the event 2014 turned out to be a fateful year for another reason: 16 Sherpas were killed on the Khumbu Icefall while taking equipment up in preparation for a summit attempt by tourist climbers. In the aftermath of the tragedy the remaining Sherpas decided they did not want to climb again in 2014, partly out of respect for the dead, partly through fear, and partly to negotiate better pay, working conditions and compensation for bereaved families. Although the Sherpas are handsomely rewarded in Nepalese terms, earning the equivalent of an average year’s wages in the space of a month, it’s still a relative pittance in comparison to the six figure sums the tourists pay to mountaineering expedition groups (which have their own overheads to cover), and the considerable portion that is subsequently pocketed by the Nepalese government. It’s this injustice and inequality that lies at the heart of the film.

One reason for friction between the Sherpas and the foreign climbers is the issue of respect. The Sherpas work hard and take incredible risks in order to pave the way for those waiting at Everest Base Camp, and although plenty of the climbers interviewed here appreciate their efforts, show respect and form strong bonds with the local men, it’s the ones who can’t hide their contempt that stand out. When a small number of Sherpas are identified as being ‘ringleaders’ during the negotiations with expedition organisers and the government – i.e. those who are being more forceful with their demands for workers’ rights – an American man enquires whether the Sherpas’ ‘owners’ can do anything about them, which is an unfortunate way of referring to their western employers, to say the least. The same man – at least I think it’s the same man – later compares the Sherpas’ collective decision not to climb again that season as an act of terrorism. He’s completely serious.

The film suggests that the origin of this overbearing attitude – which is held by a minority of climbers – lies in the treatment of Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, the first Nepalese man to reach the summit. Norgay was portrayed as a passive, happy-go-lucky background figure by the world’s media, quite different to the way Edmund Hillary was depicted, and this seems to inform the views of a handful of ignorant mountaineers today, who want their Sherpas to be seen and not heard. The Sherpas, on the other hand, are right to push back and demand equal footing with their wealthy visitors. However, despite the unpleasant behaviour of some, it must be said that most of the temporary residents of Base Camp who appear in this documentary are above such immaturity and entitlement, and accept or support the decision not to climb despite their own individual disappointment, effort and financial loss (though I dare say if you’re spending north of $100,000 to climb Everest you can probably take the hit). Some documentary filmmakers would be tempted by the opportunity to repeatedly demonise the climbers, but Peedom finds a balance by highlighting the various ways their presence has (positively and negatively) impacted life in the Himalayas, and by interviewing several foreigners who are sympathetic to the Sherpa cause, and who understand their grief.

Peedom focuses on one Sherpa and his family in particular, and one expedition organiser, which makes for an interesting contrast in terms of how the aftermath of the tragedy is handled, particularly when discussions between these long-standing colleagues become awkward and cultural differences become more pronounced. (Interestingly, on that note, Norgay felt that he was crawling into the mountain’s lap, as opposed to the more arrogant notion of ‘conquering’ it.) The documentary has currency in the wake of the 2014 disaster and last year’s devastating earthquake, in which even more people died on the mountain, while on a lesser note it serves to right the whitewashing wrong of last year’s blockbuster Everest, which depicted the Sherpas as incidental characters. Needless to say Sherpa features plenty of magnificent footage of the mountain itself, as well as the surrounding peaks. It should inspire awe in all who see it, as was the case for this particular cinemagoer, who sat in a chair that was firmly bolted to the ground.

Directed by: Jennifer Peedom.
Written by: Jennifer Peedom.
Cinematography: Hugh Miller, Renan Ozturk, Ken Sauls.
Editing: Christian Gazal.
Music: Antony Partos.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 96 minutes.
Year: 2015.


I’m no connoisseur of the long-running British weekly comic 2000AD, though I did read it intermittently as a teenager, attracted by its edgy mix of anarchy, violence and wit (all of which can usually be found in its most famous long-running strip, Judge Dredd). The influence of 2000AD can now be felt across many of today’s sci-fi and superhero movies, as well as many comics, while even as far back as 1987 the likes of Robocop – referred to as a (very good) Judge Dredd rip-off here – used the title for inspiration. This documentary by Paul Goodwin was quite illuminating for me, given that it traces the full history of the comic from its inception during the mid-to-late 1970s (birthed into a storm of punk and the early days of Thatcher’s Britain) to the present day (it still comes out every Wednesday), and I presume its loyal readers will love all the interesting detail and anecdotes included. Along the way there have been editorial squabbles and lean periods – the comic endured some poor years during the 1990s, and there was the small matter of Danny Cannon’s much-maligned Judge Dredd film – but the overall focus of Future Shock! is on the combined talent of the artists, writers and editors who have contributed to 2000AD‘s success. Most of these appear as talking heads, and it’s an impressive roster; the likes of Grant Morrison, Alan Grant, Dave Gibbons, Mark Millar and Neil Gaiman all cut their teeth on various strips, and they have plenty of interesting things to say about the comic here, as well as their wider careers as writers and artists. (Alan Moore – one of 2000AD‘s most famous contributors – is a notable absentee. His story The Ballad Of Halo Jones remains unfinished due to an intellectual property dispute with the publisher, which still upsets many of his contemporaries today, with Gaiman stating here that it would have become one of the greatest ever comic books.)

One of the most interesting passages is about the way in which several of these writers and artists moved on to work for big American publishing houses – some of those mentioned above became very influential in the comic book world, particularly with regard to their work on DC and Marvel titles – and the subject becomes a platform from which one of 2000AD‘s co-creators, Pat Mills, is able to launch a staunch and impassioned defence of his baby, refusing to accept the suggestion that it’s a mere stepping stone to greater things. Indeed Mills’ defiant, sweary testaments and barbed score-settling comments invoke the spirit of the comic regularly, so it’s a shame that the lively punk attitude synonymous with 2000AD is otherwise largely missing from this film. Presumably Goodwin had very little archive footage to draw from other than old comic panels and spreads, and thus the film relies a little too heavily on talking head interviews, which is something that eventually I found dull and overly-repetitive in a film that’s nearly two hours long. That said, the interviewees are generally quite interesting and the presence of fans such as Alex Garland, Karl Urban, Anthrax’s Scott Ian and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow mixes things up a bit. The passion for the subject is evident here, but I’m not sure there’s enough to sustain the interest of people who aren’t already interested in 2000AD, or comics generally.

Directed by: Paul Goodwin.
Cinematography: Paul Goodwin, Nick Harwood, Jim Hinson.
Editing: Paul Goodwin, Jim Hinson.
Justin Greaves.
Running Time:
109 minutes.

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