Category: Documentary

Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d’un été, France 1961)

History activated

History activated

Chronicle of a Summer is one of the most significant documentaries ever made; as stated at the start of the film:

‘This film was not played by actors, but lived by men and women who have given a few moments of their lives to a new experiment in cinema truth.”

The last two words in their original French, cinéma vérité, became emblematic of the type of film they created. Although, like Direct Cinema which was being developed for television in North America at the time, cinéma vérité used developments in lightweight equipment to shoot events as they happened, filmmaker Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin (an anthropologist), were not suggesting that they were passive bystanders merely relaying the action. They didn’t try to disguise the fact that audiences were watching a film and both directors appear onscreen talking to the participants about a range of contemporary issues such as the Algerian war and racism.

The film begins with a conversation with Marceline Loridan about her feelings of being involved in the documentary. Initially her role is as a vox pop interviewer asking passers-by if they are happy. These early scenes are shot candidly with poorly composed framing. After this the film focuses on six participants: three students, an African, an Italian, a car worker and a union man. Rouch and Morin are trying to gauge what ‘France’ thinks about the world in the summer of 1960.

The film’s ability to capture these spontaneous conversations was no doubt extremely impressive at the time. From the perspective of now the technical brilliance is somewhat lost however the snapshot of the time ensures that the film remains vital viewing.

For example, Marceline, it transpires, is a survivor from Auschwitz and in a harrowing monologue she recounts her time there. This is shot at a deserted Place du Concorde apparently with her talking to herself (her lips are clearly moving some of the time) whilst the camera moves backwards in front of her. It could be coincidental, but when she talks of being a little girl the camera noticeably recedes from her, making her look relatively small (see above). This image bridges the moment with the past when she was separated from her father in the concentration camp; it is an emotionally devastating sequence.

Later when Mary Lou is talking about her fears of being alone, the close up of her visibly distressed face, though she is trying to smile (put on a ‘brave’ face), portrays the raw emotion she is feeling. It may seem to be exploitative however Morin, who’s talking to her, says we shouldn’t talk about it and the scene cuts immediately. An African student, Landry talks about how he’d like Africans to be appreciated for more than their dancing; he is portrayed as an African explorer in France, a brilliant post-colonial characterisation.

The film concludes with reflections on itself, first from the participants and then Morin and Rouch in conversation. The participants’ views are fascinating as, after they have seen a rough cut, they appear to disagree with the meaning of what they have seen (I say ‘appear’ because we are obviously seeing what Morin and Rouch decided to include in the final version though I don’t doubt the veracity). Sam Di Iorio’s excellent Criterion essay (here) quotes Morin’s reaction to this:

Morin eventually saw the contradictory reactions it generated as proof of its strength: “My dream that this film would end with mutual understanding failed,” he wrote in 2010, “but its ultimate success lay in showing how difficult it is to understand others.”

And this is part of the film’s greatness, showing that truth is a dialogic concept and not absolute. Clearly, I’m strongly recommending this great film.

Waiting For August (Belgium 2014)

Georgiana with her birthday cake and one of her younger brothers.

Georgiana with her birthday cake and one of her younger brothers.

bfi-london-film-festival-2014-title-block-750x680Although this is a film produced in Flanders, all the action is actually set in Romania – and although the film presents itself like a documentary, it is actually a carefully-scripted observational study of a real family (the 2.35:1 ‘Scope presentation also suggests a fiction film). Writer-director Teodora Ana Mihai is herself a Romanian migrant who left the country as a child, growing up in Belgium and then California before film school in New York and a return to Belgium to work in the film industry. This surprising film is her second production and has already won four international prizes, including best documentary feature at Karlovy Vary and the Toronto Hot Docs festival. New prizes are being picked up all the time.

Georgiana is a teenager as Christmas approaches in the Romanian city where she lives with her six siblings in an overcrowded flat. Although she has an older brother who is 18, it appears that Georgiana is the de facto head of household as her single parent mother is in Italy earning the money the family needs as a cook for an elderly Italian family. Georgiana is expected to look after everybody, organising shopping, cooking and cleaning – and trying to achieve the more usual teenage goals of academic success, having fun and possibly finding a boyfriend. Soon it is her fifteenth birthday and the film’s title begins to make sense when we realise that it will have been eight months of struggle when mother finally returns at the height of summer.

Teodora Ana Mihai, <>

Director Teodora Ana Mihai

If this brief outline of the film’s plot suggests that this is going to be some form of ‘grim’ social realism, the reality is quite different. Somehow, Mihai manages to avoid jazzing up her story with dramatic incidents but still to make the everyday lives of the family members interesting. I confess that after the first twenty minutes or so – and feeling very tired – I thought that I might close my eyes and just let the film drift by. But that didn’t happen. Instead I gradually became more engaged with the characters and their daily struggles and minor triumphs. There are some moments of difficulty, e.g. when somebody tells Georgiana that the children should be in an orphanage, but these are faced and talked through with Mum on the phone or through a shaky video link on the computer. As the sun comes out in the spring, the children get to spend more time outside and Georgiana has more opportunity to talk to her schoolfriends about exams – and to catch the eyes of boys at the swimming pool.

The great strength of the film is seemingly down to three factors. The director clearly has a great rapport with these wonderful kids, the camerawork by Joachim Philippe is unobtrusive (and the sound is effective) and the seamless editing never draws attention to itself. This is the opposite of ciné vérité in which filmmakers provoke their subjects. Instead the camera seemingly just records the events as they unfold. The children are remarkably ‘ordinary’ – they don’t seem to play to the camera, but they do play and grouch like most children. This is a real family as explained in the director’s statement on the film’s excellent website:

. . . after many months of searching and numerous interviews, I finally met the Halmacs. Their story particularly touched me; fortunately, they agreed to share their everyday life with me and with the broader public. The Halmac kids literally claimed my empathy. Every single one of them is a real ‘character’, with a fascinating and well-defined personality that I just wanted to get to know better.

Having said that, I was of course also confronted with a crucial question: who was the main character in this story? Who was holding this family together in the mother´s absence? The answer came quite naturally: Georgiana, who was about to turn 15 when we started filming, had obviously taken over the parental responsibilities. She was the new point of reference for the rest of the siblings, despite her age.

As I started following Georgiana, I discovered an extremely strong, uninhibited teenager who accepted her new ‘head-of-the-family’ role with humility, without considering herself a victim. But she did possess the realisation that she — like the rest of her siblings — should have the right to a normal, more protected childhood.

I felt privileged to be allowed into their lives to tell their story of courage and resilience. After spending so much time together we all became like family, which gave this film its intimacy and, I believe, also its strength. Getting to know the Halmacs truly enriched my life.

At the end of the film when mother emerged from the airport to meet her children I had a tear in my eye. Waiting for August is already on screens in LA, San Francisco and New York and it is due to open in Belgium. I hope a UK distributor picks it up. At 88 minutes it’s a gem. Don’t miss it if you get a chance to see it.

Trailer:

Socialismi (Finland 2014)

The Paris Commune, 1871.

The Paris Commune, 1871.

This is a montage film by Peter Von Bagh screened at this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato. The Catalogue notes by Olaf Műller state the subject:

“Socialism, the 20th century’s greatest dream and source of some of its darkest nightmares.”

In fact the film takes up back to deep into the C19th, to the Paris barricades and the drafting by then two little-known activists and theorists of The Communist Manifesto (1848). The film emphasises the internationalism of that founding document right at the start – The Paris Commune in The New Babylon (Novyi Vavilon, 1929): Vietnam in Hanoi 13 Martes (Hanoi Tuesday 13th, 1966) and Chile 1973 in The Battle of Chile (La Batalla de Chile, 1977) Later it takes in the Industrial Workers of the World [The Wobblies], The Soviet Revolution, 1917; the failed revolution in Germany, 1919; and the capitalist counter-attack and the problematic decade of the 1930s. including Spain and the Republican struggle. The film presents events up until the fall of ‘The Wall’ surrounding East Berlin in 1989. There is an overall chronology, but the film also draws parallels across movements and events as edits jump between decades and territories.

The film does focus primarily on the European theatre, but there is a section on ‘Socialism and the Third World’. We encounter the Chinese revolution, the rather different revolutions in Cuba, as well as Vietnam and Chile. Also included are darker passages from the past – the Soviet show trials, the Stakhanovite movement and the non-proletarian dictatorships in Eastern Europe post W.W.II.

The structure of the film offers eighteen sections; each introduced by a caption and a quotation from noted political leaders, activist, writers, artists and thinkers. Marx is here, along with Maxim Gorky, John Reed, Bertolt Brecht, Andre Malraux and Jack London.

Each is accompanied by one of the quotation against a red background. The sections are short, averaging 4 to 5 minutes though they vary considerably in length, and the montage is rapid.

The choice of film material draws a continuous interaction between cinema and socialism. Thus the film opens with the famous Lumière film of workers leaving their factory, (La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière a Lyon, Workers leaving the Lumière Factory, 1895). Very quickly we are at the Paris Commune. Later there are extracts from films like Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potemkin, 1925) and October (Ten Days that Shook the World, Okltyabr, 1928), but also from D. W. Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat (1909), Chaplin’s one and two reel comedies, J. B. Priestley’s They Came to a City (1944), Hollywood’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Mathew (Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo, 1964), and The Red Detachment of Women (Honhse Niangzijun, 1961).

This is a powerful and, in many ways, inspiring film. It does what good political films should do – agitate, stimulate, question and inform. The film engages, celebrates but also questions 150 years or so of the main progressive movement in the world under capitalism. The film is absorbing and the use of accompanying music – including soundtracks, jazz, choirs and popular melodies – is an excellent example of sound montage. Several films are featured more than once, but I think only one shot was presented three times. Right at the end, we see again the opening shot from Part III of Battleship Potemkin, the harbour in the early morning mist. This is an example of the complexity of Eisenstein’s conception of montage but the image also provides a metaphor for working class aims – arriving in the safe harbour of socialism and a new order.

The original, longer review is on Third Cinema Blog.

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: