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Archive for the ‘Documentary’ Category

BIFF 2014 #20: Powerless (Katiyabaaz, India-US 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 10 April 2014

Loha Singh – the 'Robin Hood' of Kanpur

Loha Singh – the ‘Robin Hood’ of Kanpur

Portrait Without BleedThis was the other film, along with Diego Star, that I picked out immediately from the BIFF programme and again I wasn’t disappointed. I have to agree with the brochure’s headline to its blurb on the film: “Lively, energetic and full of larger than life characters”. It’s good to see more documentaries from India making it onto the festival circuit. Many, like this production, involve some overseas input. The two directors Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa both have strong links to Uttar Pradesh in Ghaziabad and Kanpur respectively. Fahad Mustafa trained in Vienna and some of the film’s creative contributions come from his Viennese contacts. The majority of crew and HoDs comprise an impressive array of Indian talent. The film is a co-production because of the input of ITVS, the American organisation funded by public donations that feeds documentary programming into the Public Broadcasting System in the US.

The ‘powerless’ city of the title is Kanpur, with a population of nearly 3 million. Kanpur was one of the major industrial cities of British India (under the anglicised name ‘Cawnpore’) and was known as the ‘Manchester of India’ because of the large number of textile mills. Most of those have now gone (but we see an operating mill of the British India Corporation, now state-owned in the opening shots of the film) but many of the tanneries remain (there were once 400) and it is still known as the leather capital of India. Tanning requires power and creates water pollution. Because of the outages many businesses use diesel generators which add to air pollution. This is an unhealthy and poor city and the lack of electricity makes the situation worse. Kanpur has the worst electricity supply problems of any major Indian city and the residents are so angry with the local electricity supplier (KESCO) that they have taken to stealing electricity from whatever cables are actually live.

The documentary introduces three principal characters. The new boss of KESCO is Ritu Maheshwari and she is determined to reduce the theft of electricity and make the state utility more efficient. She establishes hit squads who tour the city threatening to disconnect those who are stealing. But as quickly as the squads move through the city, the specialist thieves like Lola Singh re-connect people illegally. He knows how to disable local transformers and how to attach the illegal cables – katiyas. It’s very dangerous work and at one point Singh shows us his twisted fingers and scarred limbs recounting the number of accidents he has survived. The fight then becomes three-handed when a local ‘community’ politician becomes involved, seeing the opportunity to boost his own status by bringing down the KESCO chief.

What we don’t see is any suggestion as to how the basic problem of energy supply can be resolved. The filmmakers argue that what they are concerned with is the inequality inherent in contemporary Indian society. They didn’t want to make a film about the poor as ‘victims’ or to be didactic in analysing the situation. They have tried to present both Ritu Maheshwari and Lola Singh in a balanced way and attempted to enable the issues to become visible as we watch them at work. The executive, for instance, suffers from chauvinism in her company. The film works so well because it is the product of highly competent documentarists augmented by commercial Indian filmmakers who contribute an excellent music score and sound design. It is very accessible and entertaining as well as a real eye-opener about the appalling state of Indian industrial infrastructure.

As India goes to the polls, the frustration with the Indian political system becomes more and more visible. As the filmmakers suggest, electrical power is not available on a universal basis. It goes first to the rich and India’s poor have the least access to electricity of any major population group worldwide. The people are ‘powerless’ in this sense. But do they have political power? I’m apprehensive about the result of the elections, especially if the BJP get a majority but I’m heartened by quality work like this film.

The film’s website gives more background and here’s a teaser trailer:

Posted in Documentary, Festivals and Conferences, Indian Cinema, Indian independent | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

BIFF 2014 #16: Costa da Morte (Coast of Death, Spain 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 6 April 2014

Local shellfish harvesters on the Costa da Morte

Local shellfish harvesters on the Costa da Morte

Portrait Without BleedThe third Spanish film in my BIFF viewings offers something very different and very welcome – beautiful images of a unique landscape and its people in an artistic and poetic documentary. These images are nearly always framed in long shot and held long enough for us to contemplate the stories being told and to allow our gaze to wander across the composition, following tiny moving figures or noting the import of the situation. Before the feature screening there was an earlier short by the same filmmaker, Mountain in Shadow (Spain 2012). In the short Lois Patiño trains his camera on the ski slopes of a mountain range in Iceland. The contrasting white, grey and black of landscape and people (tiny figures) make both abstract patterns and moving tapestries. On a big screen the image seems to tremble or pulsate with life. As well as marvelling at the compositions and framings, I found myself also wondering how did you get those shots. Is the camera on another hillside hundreds of metres away with a long lens? Or is the camera in a balloon or on a helicopter? I think the latter is unlikely since the shots are held steady and the expense would be too great.

The same questions about camera positions come up with Costa da Morte. Here the long shots show us the treacherous waters of the Galician coast around Finisterre which the locals are able to navigate to harvest shellfish and goose barnacles. This is in itself dangerous but at least the locals know where the rocks are. The coast’s name is said to arise from the high number of shipwrecks caused by hidden rocks in difficult waters. As on other ‘wrecking coasts’ there are also stories about ships being lured in so their cargoes can be ransacked. Patiño shows us the coast in detail and we hear the tiny figures in the distance discussing the dangers. He also takes his camera inland to the forests and mountains of Galicia, exploring forestry and that other elemental danger of fire on the hills. I was a little surprised by the extent of these fires – Galicia is generally wet and green, but presumably dries in Summer. (The first images in the film gradually reveal loggers at work as the trees emerge from the mists on the mountains.) Again we hear stories about firefighters who sometimes re-started fires to keep themselves in work. We also see farmers and quarrymen – all in relation to their environment. This is a region where people have struggled in poverty for centuries battling against the elements. At the end of the film in the credits I noticed the name ‘Castro’ and remembered sitting in a bar in Havana which displayed Galician mementoes and support for the region’s teams. I assume that like Ireland and the Canary Islands, many Galicians from the coast looked West for the chance to make a new life.

Lois Patiño is a young filmmaker from Vigo (the biggest city in Galicia to the South-West of Costa da Morte). This is his first feature and he is an obvious talent who with this film is an obvious contender for Bradford’s European feature prize. (The film has already won prizes in other festivals.) The beautiful Press Pack on the film’s website includes the director’s statement which eloquently sums up the filmmaker’s intention:

I sought to relate the vastness of the natural space to the intimate experience of people through a double perceptual distance to the human figure (far in the image close in the sound). Eventually through the deep contemplation of the image we will dissolve in the whole and disappear into the landscape of Costa da Morte.

Posted in Documentary, Festivals and Conferences, Spanish Cinema | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

BIFF 2014 #12: Phantom (France 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 3 April 2014

"A montage of Tokyo sights"

“A montage of Tokyo sights”

Portrait Without BleedPhantom was screened alongside a short film, Tokyo Dreams (Japan 2013) by Nicholas Barker. It’s not difficult to see the logic of the pairing. In Tokyo Dreams the camera captures commuters on Tokyo’s network of local rail services sleeping through the routine of their journeys. I wondered just how many of these sleepers had been asked to sign a release form for their appearance but otherwise the film didn’t do very much for me. Phantom is much more interesting. The title refers to the sense of people all around you in a city like Tokyo who are somehow not ‘solid’ and ‘connected’ to the life of the city. They aren’t ghosts but they haven’t got substance. The extract below includes the discussion of the term in the film.

Phantom is directed by Jonathan Soler and it is basically a one-person job. He is a young (born 1985) French filmmaker who has spent a year and a half in Japan. The idea of the film is an essay about living in the city constructed around a young woman and her boyfriend who spend a night when neither can sleep discussing how they feel about their lives in Tokyo. In fact it’s mostly the woman who reveals her thoughts and the boyfriend who listens and occasionally adds his comments. Soler auditioned actors to read the script he had written and then edited the dialogue before adding the image track. The images comprise short and long sequences in a montage of aspects of city life (trains again, discarded objects in the street, roads, buildings etc.) and some scenes of the couple in her flat or in art galleries, on walkways above the city etc. I got the impression that the views of Tokyo gradually moved from the centre of the city to the outskirts. The crucial point is that although we see the couple on screen, none of the dialogue is in synch with characters we see speaking – everything is in effect voiceover. Music is in an important part of the film. During the montages of Tokyo life, an electronic score underpins the camera’s movement but I think that during the dialogue scenes the music is absent. Soler credits several filmmakers as the possible source of inspiration for Phantom and it was Chris Marker’s San Soleil (with its Japanese sequences) that resonated with me.

I confess that I did find Phantom difficult to follow, although I found what the young woman was saying to be very interesting. Part of the problem was that I found it more difficult than usual to track the image while at the same time reading the subtitles. This was partly because the image was often very dark and blurred and therefore needed more attention, but the subtitles were also quite dense. The blurring of the image is a function of the decision to shoot in available light with the aperture on the Canon 50mm lens permanently set at f1.8 and therefore always giving only a shallow depth of focus. I can imagine that if I didn’t have to read the subtitles, I could have given more attention to the images. I also found the overall aesthetic (the music/silence, the dark screen and disembodied voices) to be quite good at lulling me to sleep. (I should have had the coffee before not after the screening!) This was unfortunate as the script has plenty to say about being young in the city.

The young woman eventually reveals that she is well-educated, including a year spent overseas, but can only get temporary work – often as a menial worker. As well as the stress of not being able to afford her modest flat and enough food to keep her going she feels that she can’t be part of urban life (we watch her eating instant noodles). She describes how she feels that the world around her is floating, coming apart.  She talks about having to return to live with her mother – the common issue for young adults across the developed world today. She also refers to more specifically Tokyo issues. At one point she says that some people live in manga cafés and both she and her partner dream about opening a small bar/restaurant – which made me think of the excellent Japanese film Dreams For Sale (Japan 2012). She mentions two novels that she has been reading. One is Horoki, a 1927 novel by Hayashi Fumiko. Hayadhi was known as the major writer of ‘women’s literature’ which for many years was deemed ‘inferior’. Several of her books were adapted by Naruse Mikio for his great melodramas of the 1950s. Also mentioned is Kanikōsen (1929) a short novella about exploited crab-pickers that has also been filmed (twice) and adapted for the stage.

Phantom is an intelligent and original film. I think most of the people who have seen it (and have commented on IMDB) have done so via an internet link. The film is available (with English subs) from Amazon France (Region 2). Its theatrical screenings might perhaps be rare because its length (76 minutes) is best suited to compilation screenings in festivals etc. I suspect that it is actually easier to watch on DVD or on a computer screen. However, I don’t regret seeing on a very big screen. I would recommend the film and I’ll look out for future work by Jonathan Soler.

Press Pack (in English)

Extract explaining the meaning of ‘Phantom’:

Posted in Documentary, Festivals and Conferences, French Cinema | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

BIFF 2014 #10: Mouton (France 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 2 April 2014

David Mérabet as 'Mouton'

David Mérabet as ‘Mouton’

Portrait Without BleedThis was the first disappointment of the festival for me. The festival brochure makes much of the prize and high critical ratings that the film has received but it seems to me that it takes too much time over its limited character studies. The praise perhaps helps to demonstrate the gulf between the festival critic and the cinema audience – even one attuned to arthouse films. Festival critics are keen to latch onto something new. The two directors, Gilles Deroo and Marianne Pistone were making their debut feature. DoP Eric Alirol shot on 16mm blown up to be projected on 35mm – which we watched on the large Pictureville screen –  and this is perhaps another reason for its critical success since the film looks and feels quite different to most of the festival’s digital offerings.

There has been a debate about ‘slow cinema’ over the last few years and there is certainly an argument to say that having time to reflect and observe can create new experiences for audiences. But there must be something to see and something to think about. Here I thought that we needed to know a little more about the people and the place. The title (‘Sheep’) refers to the nickname given to a young man (presumably aged 17) who is forcibly removed from the control of his mother by local social services and who gets himself a ‘live-in’ kitchen job in the small coastal town of Courseulles-sur-Mer in Basse-Normandie (the site of Juno beach for the Canadians during the D-Day landings). We see Mouton at work and at play with the others who work in the restaurant-hotel and with his friends in the town. There is a dramatic incident halfway through the film but little in the way of conventional narrative (a young waitress starts work in the restaurant and Mouton starts a relationship with her). At the end of the film you do feel that you have learned something about the lives of a small group of people in a particular region of France – but that doing so has been a bit of a slog.

This isn’t to say that the film is without merit and several scenes work very well. To pick a couple at random, a young man feeds the dogs in a dark and dingy kennel block and then hoses himself down. In another the central character comes back from the beach and washes the sand from his feet (in a big close-up). These simple actions work well on screen but I couldn’t help thinking that they might have been more effective in a series of short films. Similar sequences (filmed rather differently) are offered in some of the shorts which have accompanied the feature screenings at BIFF.

I feel mean in not responding more positively to Mouton but it is in the end a matter of taste and what we think cinema is for. For a feature of this kind (100 mins) I personally want more to get my teeth into. If the intention is to explore a documentary drama technique, I think that could work in half the time.

Posted in Documentary, Festivals and Conferences, French Cinema | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

BIFF 2014 #8: The Joycean Society (Belgium 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 1 April 2014

A Joycean palimpsest – a text with textual amendments, notes, embellishments, a text upon a text.

A Joycean palimpsest – a text with textual amendments, notes, embellishments, a text upon a text.

Portrait Without BleedI haven’t laughed so much in a cinema for a long time. This ‘mid-length’ documentary (52 mins) is extremely simple. It comprises a single camera roaming, mainly in close-up and shallow focus, around a room in Zurich in which the James Joyce Foundation offers the chance to discuss Finnegan’s Wake on a regular basis. The informative website gives all the background. The participants in the discussion in the film are mainly older people with just a couple younger, and presumably academics. We learn that for some of them this is their third time reading the book a few lines at a time and attempting to find all the possible meanings in this, Joyce’s richest book in terms of allusions.

The group comprises Europeans and at least one North American. The whole conversation is conducted in English and my only gripe about the film is that on the print we saw everything is also subtitled in English. It is certainly helpful to see Joyce’s words in print since so many of them are recondite and spelt in interesting ways. However, to have all the dialogue subtitled is unnecessary and a distraction. Everyone speaks English well enough and the subs aren’t needed. It’s revealing how easily the eye is drawn to read when there is no need. Having said that, Dora Garcia’s film isn’t particularly interested in the image as such, although the cinematographer tries to ring the changes. There are a couple of scenes outside the room in which one of the participants expands on the background to the group. Speakers are often framed in profile or are only seen partially, often out of focus. The words are the important elements.

I think that I laughed most at the naiveté and sensitivity of the participants concerning sex, death etc. – topics Joyce was gleeful about exploring. Mostly it’s like watching University Challenge and enjoying getting question right before the team. But I shouldn’t underestimate these guys and they do know a lot. It’s a pleasure to see people working together without being competitive.

I understand that the work is actually part of a larger project. That makes sense. As it stands I don’t think it fits into the European features competition. I tend to go by the French definition that requires a feature to be 65 mins or more. But if you do get the chance to see it, do take it.

Posted in Belgian Cinema, Documentary, Festivals and Conferences | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

BIFF 2014 #6: Karaoke Girl (Sao Karaoke, Thailand-US 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 1 April 2014

Sa Sittijun, the 'Karaoke Girl'

Sa Sittijun, the ‘Karaoke Girl’

Portrait Without BleedIt’s one of the most familiar tales told in any culture approaching ‘modernity’ – a young and attractive girl leaves her home in a rural village and travels to the city where eventually she drifts (or is coerced) into work that she would rather not tell her parents about. She sends money home, partly out of guilt and partly because she misses aspects of home. At some point she travels home and lives a lie. Back in the city she has a woman friend and an unreliable boyfriend. We’ve all seen that story on the big screen and it’s repeated here. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth watching again.

Introducing the film Michael Pattison told us that the director Visra Vichit-Vadakan has a wealthy American partner and that explains the film’s identity. However, the film feels ‘local’ rather than international. As in most films of this type, the central performance is very important. Sa Sittijun is excellent in the role and the Pressbook reveals that she is acting alongside her real family in the village in what is at heart her own story. The film began as a documentary and several documentary traits have remained. There is an extensive use of voiceover as Sa remembers her childhood playing by the river and on other occasions we hear her replying to an invisible interviewer and explaining her actions and what has happened to her in her move to the city. The ‘observational documentary’ approach is most evident in the scenes showing her return to her village.

The film looks and sounds good but watching it on the IMAX screen (which the festival uses with a conventional projection shown in the centre of the giant screen) it did seem that perhaps it was shot on a lower resolution digital camera as the image was a little soft and some clarity was lost. However, I enjoyed the film and though it doesn’t offer anything new it does give an insight into aspects of life in Thailand. The scenes in the city are not as exploitative as the title suggests. The village footage is colourful and engaging and in terms of the contradiction between nostalgia for a childhood by the river and fear of entrapment in a limited life, both engaging and revealing.

Posted in Documentary, Festivals and Conferences | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

BIFF 2014 #3: The Coal Miner’s Day (Le jour du mineur, France 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 31 March 2014

380 metres underground – unbelievable perhaps, but the plastic bags suspended from the roof are filled with water as a fire safety measure!

380 metres underground – unbelievable perhaps, but the plastic bags suspended from the roof are filled with water as a fire safety measure!

Portrait Without BleedOne of the major pluses of an international film festival is the opportunity it offers to glimpse something of the culture of the countries you haven’t visited. This is especially useful when the said country is in the news – as Ukraine is now. Whether a documentary made by an ‘outside observer’ is an added bonus is a moot point. The Coal Miner’s Day was shot by the French documentarist Gaël Mocaër in 2010 and released in 2013.

The festival’s brochure makes a lot of the obvious interaction between the miners and the camera. The miners frequently refer to the “Frenchie” while looking at the camera. I don’t know if Gaël Mocaër speaks any Ukrainian but he credits a translator so probably not. I don’t mind a little interaction like this but I found it got tedious after a while, as did the habit of shooting as Mocaër was navigating the dangerous seams underground – there are many shots of feet and the ground they are walking on. (But the approach does reveal how dangerous the work is.)

More important is the structure of a documentary. I don’t mind a radical structure if the film is meant to explore form and narrative, but in a documentary that genuinely attempts to document, structure becomes an important part of communication. Here Mocaër uses the annual ‘Coal Miner’s Day’ at a colliery in North-West Ukraine to bookend his account of a year he spent documenting the activities at the mine. We learn about the outdated machinery that is always breaking down and the inadequate health & safety standards. We hear about the miners’ wages (€300 per month) and one comments on the cost of the camera that Mocaër uses, pointing out that at €8,000 it’s the equivalent of a mini-van. (The wages are actually higher than those in any town-based job.) We see the mine manager trying to get more from his workers and suggesting that they aren’t pulling their weight and we see a rather officious canteen manager berating her staff, but we don’t see a real dispute between the miners and their bosses. It’s still a state-owned mine and there seems to be some sense of collectivism left amidst the usual grumbles. Given the working conditions and lack of proper equipment you feel that the men have major grievances, but the miners and their families seem to take the celebrations of Miner’s Day (seemingly another hangover from Soviet days) as genuine. In a subtle moment, Mocaër’s camera picks out a Soviet era belt buckle and you do wonder if the miners are better off now or not? (The Soviet emblems crop up several times in the film.)

The coal train fills up at the colliery in the Summer

The coal train fills up at the colliery in the Summer

The film seems to give Mocaër’s direct observation/impression of the miners’ life at work. There are tantalising glimpses of the wider society (horse and cart as public transport in winter – not very different from Tolstoy’s time), but I would have liked to see more of the local community and the miners’ culture. Do they sing, have libraries and social clubs etc.? I’d also like to know more about the coal industry and the future for the miners. I realise this would be another film and I can accept this film as it is but I think it could have been more. Having said that, Gaël Mocaër has done a terrific job in producing the film virtually on his own. Shooting it was dangerous work and it always looks good, so as a piece of genuine film art it should be celebrated. Perhaps though, he could find some collaborators and return or someone else could give us the broader picture of Ukrainian mining culture?

There is a website (in French) for the film which I have not had the time (or skill) to fully translate, but from the little I have read, Gaël Mocaër explains his approach. I was amazed to read that the mine only opened in 1992.

Posted in Documentary, Festivals and Conferences, French Cinema | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

¡Viva! 2014 #4: Bertsolari (Spain 2011)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 24 March 2014

Bertsolaria Maialen Lujanbio in performance

Bertsolaria Maialen Lujanbio in performance (photo from http://www.flickr.com/people/www_ukberri_net/)

Viva14This is one of the best documentaries I have seen for a long time. It tells a fascinating story about an art form and cultural practice I didn’t know about before, it features interesting and engaging individuals, it’s carefully structured and well directed – and it looks wonderful. Add in the photogenic possibilities of the Basque country and this is a winner in every regard. I saw this as second out of four films at ¡Viva! and at the start of the next screening I noticed that the montage of clips that makes up the festival’s promo reel contains a disproportionate number of clips taken from Bertsolari – I quite understand why the editor of the promo felt compelled to include so many.

A bertso is a sung poem improvised around a given topic. The singers are bertsolari and the art form itself is bertsolaritza. These are all Basque words in the Basque language Euskara. As part of an oral performance art tradition, bertsolaritza was first established in rural areas where the population might have been illiterate and oral traditions were very important. From the 19th century onwards the form began to be more formally organised and moved into urban areas. With the suppression of Basque culture from the late 19th century up until the end of the Franco period in the 1970s, bertsolaritza began to be seen as virtually the only channel for the expression of Basque ideas and values – as a form based entirely on ‘performing’ in the Basque language it was more difficult for the Spanish metropolitan forces to control.

National competitions for bertsolari began as early as the 1930s but really took off in a major way in 1980 with audiences of 10,000 and more for the championships. Bertsolari the documentary focuses on the 2009 championship final held at the Bilbao Exhibition Centre in front of 15,000 people. It uses the winner of the previous four contests, Andoni Egaña Makazaga, as a guide. He takes us through the art of bertsolaritza, illustrating how he manages to compartmentalise his brain and to store rhymes so that whatever the subject he is given he can methodically go through the possible bertsos he could construct. The film’s director, Asier Altuna foregrounds the professional relationship between Andoni and the leading female bertsolari Maialen Lujanbio as they prepare for the championship. This is a competition without clashing egos. The competitors know each other well and they respect and support each other. I don’t think that the outcome of the contest will surprise anybody – but it’s still a moving occasion.

Altuna has several other strands alongside the build-up to the championship. His camera ranges across the region and finds several arresting images including one of a group of people sitting in chairs on the beach as the tide sweeps in amongst them. In another a young woman strides, seemingly unconcerned along the edge of a precipice. These seem to be symbols for the unnerving tasks facing the bertsolari when they are given some very demanding topics around which to improvise a poem/song. Did I mention how beautifully they sing as well? Another strand running through the film tells us about the history of bertsolitza and about how it is still developing with the addition of musical accompaniment for some performers. An American academic, John Miles Folley offers us an anthropologist’s view of bertsolitza as an oral performance tradition and relates it to other similar traditions and to modern forms like hip-hop/rap. But he points out that nothing compares to bertsolitza in terms of attracting such large knowledgeable and diverse audiences – of all ages, men and women.

I do hope that some enterprising distributor picks up this film for UK cinemas or TV. I’m so glad to have got the opportunity to see it at ¡Viva!

Long clip on Vimeo:

Posted in Documentary, Festivals and Conferences, Spanish Cinema | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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