Category: Documentary

Finding Fela (US 2014)

Fela Kuti

Fela Kuti

My initial response to this film was to query why I had forgotten so much of what happened in the 1970s and 1980s – and then wonder whether I had ever known about it in the first place. The latter seems unlikely since Fela Kuti, the subject of this documentary, was a prominent figure in both music and political struggle in Nigeria during the 1970s and 1980s. When I got home I discovered some of his music in my collection. I think perhaps I was more interested in Francophone African music or South African jazz at the time – in which case this film was instructive but also left me wanting more.

Fela Kunti was born into a middle class Yoruba family in 1938. His mother was a significant figure in the Nigerian struggle against British colonialism and his father became a prominent educationalist. His elder brothers trained as doctors but Fela turned to music, abandoning Trinity College in London and discovering jazz. He arrived back in now independent Nigeria in the early 1960s after developing his skills in high-life music in Ghana. From then on he developed his own style later dubbed ‘Afrobeat’ and his Afrika Shrine club in Lagos became a focal point for music fans and also for dissent in the face of oppression by the succession of military leaders in Nigeria – some of whom were well-known to Fela and his family.

Finding Fela is a documentary by the suspiciously prolific Alex Gibney who appears to produce two or three high profile documentary films each year. This one runs to 120 mins – which is both a tad long for my taste but also not long enough to explore all the potential stories crammed into Fela’s relatively short life (he died in 1997). (By African standards it was, of course, a relatively long life and the fact that he died of AIDS seems symbolic in some way.)

Gibney’s approach is to hang his story on the preparations for and extracts from the Broadway musical Fela! first seen ‘Off Broadway’ in 2008 as written by Bill T. Jones and  Jim Lewis. We are taken by Jones through the difficult decisions about how to stage the show and how to deal with Fela’s music and his lyrics – which basically recount his activities and what he made of their impact. Intercut with this is a chronology represented via archive footage and interviews with those closest to Fela, including his children, manager, band colleagues and prominent fans. There are also several interviews with Fela Kuti himself so he is able to speak to us directly.

The more I reflect on the experience of watching the film, the more frustrated I feel. The film is well made and its narrative flows easily so that I was never bored – but none of the stories were developed as much as I wanted. More on high-life and how it became Afrobeat would have been good. More background on the family and the politics of Nigeria in the 1960s and 1970s would also have been good – but couldn’t have been achieved in a single feature. Gibney’s use of the Broadway musical and Fela’s American contacts gives the whole film an American or perhaps African-American feel. This is interesting, especially given the recent developments in links between Nigerian filmmakers and the diaspora audiences in the US. However, the film’s commentary offers the audience two assertions/observations that are more intriguing. One raises the comparison with Bob Marley – is Fela Kuti a similar figure as a ‘Third World Superstar’? Why is he more difficult for an American audience to understand? The second assertion is that Fela Kuti is second only to Nelson Mandela as an icon of popular resistance in Africa during the 1980s. I’m not sure about either of these observations but I am intrigued that my memory is that music from Francophone West Africa and from South Africa/Zimbabwe made more impact with me than the Nigerian/Ghanaian variety. Why? Fela Kuti sang in English for much of the time. Was he more likely to look towards the US? The documentary quotes his reactions to the racism he experienced in London in the late 1950s and how later he ‘re-learned’ African history after reading Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey, writings introduced to him by American contacts. Again, I would have liked more on this.

Gibney has made his name with documentaries that focus on ‘fallen’ men (most recently Lance Armstrong) and Fela Kuti’s later career saw him increasingly interested in forms of African culture that eventually found him involved with a Ghanaian magician of doubtful repute. He was also criticised because of his approach to his marriage and his sexual adventures. This is covered in the latter stages of the film but I’m not sure about the way in which the transition from ‘heroic’ to ‘lost’ is handled in the film. There were a couple of clips from Channel 4 in the UK (Black on Black and a Muriel Grey interview) that weren’t properly captioned and that makes me think that this documentary was rushed. Overall, the view of Fela Kuti presented seems superficial, somehow less than the sum of the different parts of the film. I wonder what a filmmaker with more understanding of West African culture might have produced with the same access to the archives and personnel presented here. I suspect that they might not have used quite so much footage of the Broadway show and might have dug a bit deeper into the Nigerian experience.

The official US trailer:

Man With A Movie Camera (Chelovek s kinoapparatom, Soviet Union 1929

Eye-eye

Eye-eye

Sight & Sound‘s current issue suggests that Man with a Movie Camera is the best documentary ever made; this follows on from the film’s appearance in the top ten 2012 poll, in the same magazine, of the best films ever made. As long as we don’t treat such lists too seriously (it’s absurd to think one is better than all others unless you’re talking about Everton), such canons can be useful in highlighting films that might be neglected. I’m not sure Man with a Movie Camera is neglected but it is a great film.

It is a witty example of the ‘City’ film, such as Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Berlin, die Symphonie der Großstadt, 1927), as it documents a ‘day in the life’ of an anonymous city; actually an amalgam on Moscow, Kiev and Odessa. It starts with the city waking up, cutting between an anonymous woman rising and the start of the ‘rush hour’. It continues with work, focusing on factory and mining as well as the onrushing traffic. Toward the end we see people in their leisure time. The film’s bookended by an audience in a cinema watching Man with a Movie Camera.

It is this self-reflexivity that situates the film in the avant garde of the time. For much of the film we see Mikhail Kaufmann (Vertov’s brother) shooting the movie. A number of avant garde techniques, such as split screen and superimposition, are employed.

Clearly the ‘man with the movie camera’ is a bit of a ‘lad’ as early in the film the camera lingers on a woman’s legs. A cut to the camera lens, with an eye superimposed upon it (literally the ‘Kino-Eye’) is winking. The woman, once she realises she’s being ogled, gets up and walks off. He also likes his beer.

The wit suffuses the film that is also characterised by an astonishingly fast average shot length (ASL):

In 1929, the year it was released, films had an average shot length (ASL) of 11.2 seconds. “Man With a Movie Camera” had an ASL of 2.3 seconds.        (http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-man-with-a-movie-camera-1929)

At one point a registry office for marriage and divorces is intercut with a woman giving birth and funerals. The frenzy of the editing suggests that life can be encapsulated in these four events; Vertov’s wife, Yelizaveta Svilova edited the film.

There’s more to the film that technical wizardry, Vertov was making a political statement:

. . . it is a critique of Lenin’s temporising with the middle class with his New Economic Policy… Vertov shows us beggars and porters and bourgeoisie parading themselves in horse-drawn carriage . . . The Bolshoi Theatre, for Vertov an unacceptable relic of the old regime, is made optically to collapse on itself. (Winston, Sight & Sound, September 2014: 39a)

‘Dziga Vertov’, by the way, means ‘spinning top’.

Celebrating 75 Years of the National Film Board of Canada

The current Norman McLaren centenary  screenings and the ‘Documentary Special’ edition of Sight and Sound (September 2014) have prompted me to think about one of the most important public bodies associated with film production: the National Film Board of Canada. The NFB is 75 years old this year having been founded by the Scottish documentarist John Grierson in 1939. His fellow Scot Norman McLaren was recruited in 1941. The Film Board went on to embrace and significantly develop the film culture of Francophone Canada and to encourage filmmaking for all Canadian communities. As well as a resource for Canadians, the Film Board has become a major international producer of documentaries, animated films and fiction shorts and features, winning so far – as the banner above proclaims – over 5,000 awards in its 75 year life. The NFB has produced a timeline graphic as part of its celebrations and has encouraged everyone to display it, so here it is: timeline-nfb-75th-final-english

My own encounters with the board’s films came first in the 1970s when I remember seeing its documentaries in various programmes at the National Film Theatre here in the UK. When I started teaching I found that the film library at Canada House on Trafalgar Square in London would lend copies of films (no charge) on 16mm to use in the classroom and I borrowed several NFB films in this way. It was around this time that I became aware of the legacy of John Grierson’s work and the importance of Norman McLaren – as well as the diversity of Canadian filmmaking. I don’t know if such arrangements survived the demise of 16mm but educational activities remain an important part of the NFB’s overall programme. More recently I’ve become aware of the importance of the NFB in the remarkable growth of Quebecois filmmaking from the 1960s onwards. Often quoted as the most important Canadian feature, Claude Jutra’s Mon Oncle Antoine (1971) is one of several feature films available both online and for download from the National Film Board website. More recently, the NFB produced the marvelous Sarah Polley film Stories We Tell (2012). The online collection of films is extensive and anyone could spend happy hours or days exploring it. Many films are available in both English and French language versions – the practice seems to have been to dub rather than subtitle the alternative versions of many of the films. This is a little unfortunate since the dubs sound artificial. But that’s is a minor quibble.

Women as creative filmmakers at the NFB

Because I was recently reading about the difficult careers of John Grierson’s sisters Ruby and Marion (in The Media Education Journal – Issue 55, published by the Association for Media Education in Scotland), I was intrigued to stumble across the wartime short documentaries made by Jane Marsh at the NFB in the early 1940s. Jane Marsh produced, wrote and directed six films between 1942 and 1943 and five of them are available online. She eventually fell out with Grierson because she felt that he didn’t give her proper recognition for her achievements. Jane Marsh’s beautiful colour film from 1943, Alexis Tremblant: Habitant was written, directed and edited by Marsh and photographed by Judith Crawley – one of the first films from the NFB made largely by women in the creative roles:

https://www.nfb.ca/film/alexis_tremblay_habitant_en

Grierson was old-fashioned, even in the 1940s, in his attitudes towards the many women who worked at the NFB during the war. An interesting short film about the wartime period at the NFB can be found here. Evelyn Spice Cherry was a young woman from Western Canada who met Grierson in London where she became a director in the 1930s and was then invited to join him when he set up the NFB. She would make around 100 films in all, though she left the NFB in 1950 when it came under pressure from anti-communist witch-hunters – the Board has been at the centre of a range of controversies, which is probably an indicator of its engagement with Canadian life. Evelyn Lambart was one of the first female animators at the NFB, collaborating with Norman McLaren on six productions. Grierson was a chauvinist but also an inspirational figure who encouraged women – as another female director Gudrun Bjerring Parker attests:

https://www.nfb.ca/film/making_movie_history_gudrun_bjerring_parker

In the post-war years other women became significant directors at NFB including Caroline Leaf who joined the NFB in 1972 and directed both animations and live-action documentaries – I enjoyed watching one on the singer-musicians Kate and Anna McGarrigle from 1981.

Public service

The collection of NFB films available to view on https://www.nfb.ca is invaluable for cinephiles, film historians and anyone interested in Canadian culture. The database of films needs to be seen alongside those available from the British Film Institute, British Council and other publicly-funded resources such as PBS in the US. I hope to explore some of these in the next few weeks. In the meantime, please checkout the NFB site.

Of Time and the City revisited

online poster

online poster

This screening took place at the Hyde Park Cinema and was one in a series of films organised with The Culture Vulture, celebrating 100 years of the Leeds Society of Architecture. The film was introduced by Ronnie Hughes who authors the ‘A Sense of Place’ Blog. The film came out in the year that Liverpool celebrated its status as City of Culture (2008), a title that bought European funds into the city. Ronnie is a life-long Liverpudlian who ‘walks round the city regularly’ and who believes that cities need to be loved by their people. The film, directed by Terence Davies, is a poem or eulogy to the city by a filmmaker who was born and raised in the city but who has not lived there for some considerable time. As Ronnie noted, city lovers has their sacred places and the film presents us with those of Terence Davies.

The film is composed of a wealth of archive footage accompanied by music and a commentary by Terence Davies. The film footage has been researched by archivist Jim Anderson. He performed a similar role for Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45, and his results for this film speak just as eloquently as they did for Ken Loach’s project.

The music includes popular songs from the 1940s and 1950s, but predominantly one hears classical music, especially Davies’ beloved Mahler. The commentary stands out because Davies no longer retains any semblance of a Liverpool accent. Ronnie Hughes pointed out that in his youth Davies organised his own elocution lessons from Newsreels and the BBC Home Service, acquiring a pronounced ‘received pronunciation’ of the period.

Davies uses poetry frequently in the commentary, and like the music, much of it is from ‘high culture’. This is interspersed with his own comments on his memories and experiences of the city. These are often best described as choleric: [the S&S review makes a comparison with Philip Larkin]. There is little sense of empathy in much of this. There are a few inserts of voices of ordinary people from the past. And the archival extracts also offer a sense of empathy for the people of the city, but one strains to find this in Davies’ own voice.

The film moves over time and there is some chronology in this, but there is also much cutting between periods. This is not a history but a journey through a collection of memories. Towards the end we get film of the contemporary city and its people. Starting with children this has a warmer and slightly less pessimistic feel.

The film opens with shots inside an old cinema and this is soon followed by shots inside several churches. These are the two abiding images of Davies childhood seen in his other films – cinema and religion. He tells us later that he has become an atheist, yet religion seems to still loom large in his life. He also later came out as gay. One senses that the repression of the times and of religion has left a large mark on the filmmaker. Yet surprisingly in this film and in some of his features it is these early years that loom largest. And it is only in the 1940s and 1950s that he seems to have any feel for popular culture – something that is powerfully important in the history of Liverpool.

I was concerned about the treatment of the archive footage in the film. The sources seem to be 35mm, 16mm, possibly 9mm or Super 8 and even DVD. The early film has been cropped or at some points stretched to fit the 1.78:1frame. And the smaller formats appear to have been blown up so that the grain is extremely noticeable. The film is partly funded by the BBC, so some of this is presumably down to the demands of television. Whilst this is justified for the occasional pan across an image and for the rostrum work, it does rob much of the footage of its sense of authenticity.

This was the second time that I have seen the film at a cinema. But my impression remained the same: of a rather bitter portrait which lacked empathy. There is no sense of the famed scouse humour, or of the resilience that must have enabled the city’s people to survive and adapt through the years of extreme hardship. Both those qualities can be found in the interviews with Liverpudlians that grace Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45 [though that film has serious political problems].

There was a Q & A following the screening. A couple of people seemed fairly impressed with the film. I raised my problems with the film. Ronnie remembered being strongly moved when the film was premiered. He was especially struck by the footage of the city and the grand music that often accompanied this. However, he admitted that there was a sense that Davies had left the city for years and then returned. It seems that the film did not have a general run in Liverpool, just special screenings. Ronnie had met people who had not seen the film, partly because it sounded like an art movie.

Ronnie Hughes added that he would like to make a film using the footage but with different sound, music and commentary. Apart from the comparison with Ken Loach I also thought of other filmmakers. The film is extremely well edited by Liza Ryan-Carter. Much of this is effectively montage. However, the blend is closer to the abstract treatment in Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Berlin: die Symphonie der Grosstadt, 1927) than to a documentary with a greater feel of humanity such as Man with a Movie Camera (Chevolek a kinapparatom, 1929). Still, it was good to have the opportunity to see the film again and in the context of a very interesting discussion. Note, my colleagues seem to have rather different views on the film.