Category: Documentary

The Divide (UK 2015)

Keith

Keith

This documentary was screened at the Hyde Park Picture House and followed by a Q&A with the director, Katherine Round. The film is ‘inspired’ by the best-selling The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (2009). There was an audience of around 200 for the event. This is probably partly due to the topicality of the central issue in the film: inequality. But also Katherine Round studied at Leeds University.

This is a powerful documentary with telling effects and arguments. But I felt that it also had severe limitations. To start with the virtues. The core of the film is the presentation of the part-stories and situations of seven people living in either the USA or UK.

Alden, a New York psychologist whose clients include Wall Street Bankers. He is affluent but works long hours and so has a diminished family life.

Leah is an Afro-American single mother in Virginia and she works in a Kentucky Fried Chicken diner.

Jen and her husband live in a gated’ community. They seem less affluent than their neighbours and appear isolated. Their income is unclear.

Janet and her husband ran a video store which failed. She now works for Al-Mart in Louisiana.

Rochelle is a care worker in Newcastle-on-Tyne. Her pay is low and her hours demanding. She has difficulty feeding and clothing her children.

Darren lives on an estate in Glasgow where poverty and unemployment are endemic. He has problems with addictions.

Keith is in a California Penitentiary. he fell foul of the ‘three strikes’ rule.

We meet and hear the seven several times and learn something of their situation and their lives. We also occasionally hear the interviewer Katherine Round. Alden and Jen seem somewhat dissatisfied with their lives. Leah is more buoyant about life and Janet is active in the union. Rochelle is hard-pressed to cope. Darren’s life is very problematic but he has some hopes. Whilst Keith, after seventeen years in jail, is extremely oppressed.

The interviews and film of these subjects is intercut with comments by professionals and academics. Among these we see and hear well-known names such as the author Richard Wilkinson, Noam Chomsky and Ha-Joon Chang. There are clips of political leaders like Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and [briefly] Tony Blair at his most fatuous.

These are accompanied by archive films and television footage. They come from key years between 1979 (UK) and 1981 (USA) and the present. This is part of an argument regarding changes in the way these modern capitalist societies are organised, in particular the growing disparity between the bulk of the population and an extremely rich élite. The now familiar argument is made about how the élite, through their influence on political power, are able to not only defend but to aggrandise their share of the national cake.

The film is well shot by cinematographer Woody James. there are some excellent framing of subjects, especially Keith in the penitentiary. The editing by John Mister is extremely effective as it crosses time, the USA and the Atlantic. And the team of sound recordists have blended a variety of voices, noises and effects to good purpose, with much of the accompanying music offering a blues tone.

There were however for me serious limitation in this film. Katherine Round has worked on many documentaries for Television and I found the films’ form somewhat conventional. The film of and interviews with the subjects work very well, though the subjects do not get an equal amount of time. And the commentative voices do seem a little like ‘talking heads’. Noam Chomsky, for example, appears a couple of times with only one or two sentences: and he is not known for his brevity. Some of the illustrative material, like the adverts, feel like the visual spots in the news, filling space rather than informing. And the identification of voices or footage is not consistent. I thought that some film of the subjects could have been older footage, but this was not clear.

In terms of the inspiration by The Spirit Level, the film does not follow the book, which was very much a presentation of research. This is a more poetic vision. However, I think this approach does not present all of the book’s view. In the Q&A one audience member remarked on the absence from the film of the ‘top one percent’. Round suggested that all of the subjects were in some sense disadvantaged and therefore dissatisfied. I thought that was in the film but the sense of the oppressiveness of lives for the most exploited was much clearer. And the idea behind this ignores the way that economic impacts are more fundamental than psychological ones.

Part of the problem is that the film does not have a clear sense of class. There is a lack of economic data on the subjects. We learn that Alden gets 1500 dollars for treating clients, but we do not learn about the income of the others. In Jen’s case it is not clear where her family income comes from. Rochelle confesses to having to buy food and clothes on her credit card as she waits for payday. Leah and Janet have their own houses apparently, whilst Rochelle and Darren appear to live in council hosing. But otherwise we are left in the dark.

In fact the film spends more time on housing than income or wealth. There is more material on ‘gated communities’ than other aspects. This seems to relate to the role of ‘sub-prime mortgages’ in the 2008 crash. The analysis in the film is limited in other ways. The main argument concerns changes in the advanced capitalist economies since the 1980s. An argument that has moved centre stage since the 2008 crash. But there appears to be an unexpressed acceptance of the capitalist mode of production. A venture capitalist defends his ‘wealth making’ without challenge. Several speakers talk of how things have ‘got out of hand’. And a couple, including Chomsky, refer to the ‘unregulated market’ and that we no longer all ‘play by the same set of rules’. The anarchy of the market is at the centre of capitalism but the fundamental aspect of this mode of production is the commodity and the way that the value created in it by labour power is expropriated by the capitalist class. On the platform with Katherine Round was an equality campaigner [whose name I did not catch]. He referred to the minimum wage: a valid defensive tactic but not one that changes the fundamentals. There was no sense of the arguments by Marx and Engels that the basic mechanism of this society leads to expropriation and so inequality.

Moreover the historical view in the film is extremely limited. So it fails to draw any parallels with the 1929 crash and The Great Depression. One could tell seven stories from the 1930s that parallel those in The Divide and here we are again. [CBS documentary Meltdown: The Global Financial Collapse series draws the comparison]. And the realisation that it is a fundamental issue predates Marx and Engels. A hundred years earlier Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in The Social Contract, or Of the Social Contract, or Principles of Political Right (Du contrat social ou Principes du droit politique; 1762) that what was required was that

“no citizen is rich enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself.”

Even so the film is worth seeing, because there is not that much critical material around. It screens again at the Hyde Park on April 27th and it will screen at Picturehouse at the National Media Museum on May 31st.

¡Viva! 22 #4: Juntos y revueltos: El Mejunje de Silverio (Cuba-Spain 2014)

JUNTOSYREVUELTOS3

A drag artiste performing at El Mejunje

The title of this documentary in English is something like ‘Together and Blended’, but the official English title is Side by side, eye to eye, which doesn’t seem to mean quite the same. The second part refers to ‘El Mejunje’, a cultural centre/club based in a former hotel donated to the community by the Cuban government. The club offers children’s shows, rock concerts and other forms of light entertainment and it is also a meeting place for the local LGBTQ community in Santa Clara, a city of 250,000 people in Central Cuba.

Spanish director Nicolás Muñoz Avia has produced a 66 minute account of the club and its members divided into nine sections or ‘ingredients’ as the English subs call them. These refer in different ways to ideas about self-worth, relationships and community, expressed through titles like ‘self-love’, ‘mother’s love’, ‘lovesick’ etc. We are introduced to a range of characters, each of whom we see in observational mode with friends and family, but also as ‘witnesses’ to the activity of the club, speaking directly to camera. Finally, we get to see some of these characters performing in the clubs walled courtyard (see above). In addition, there are several more formal interviews with people who give us deeper background on the club. The image quality of the film is good. The soundtrack is a little rougher at times, but perfectly serviceable.

The various club members/visitors include a local trans performer who is the first officially elected local government representative of the community, a rock band and a dance band of older players, a couple of schoolgirls, an older lesbian couple and a local man who is an alcoholic and who relies on the club and community to look out for him. This latter episode involves ‘tough love’ by the club who ban the man for a week and urge him to clean up his act (club members have already cleaned out his room for him). There is another family group with some ‘issues’ about a feckless young man but on the whole this is not an exposé or a sensationalist reality TV type of documentary. Instead it is a relatively conventional doc about a cultural centre that gives potentially marginalised groups a social space. What was most striking for me was to see a portrait of Cuba without either tourists or the set agenda of many reports that always seem ready to criticise or undermine (this is especially true of some reports on the BBC and in the supposedly left-leaning Guardian newspaper). The documentary here stresses the official sanction/donation of the building and several of the organisers profess their solid support for the revolution, perhaps over-emphasising this when a performance takes place in front of the national flag and portraits of Fidel and Che (which don’t appear on other clips of the club on YouTube). On the other hand, when a revolutionary speech plays on the PA during a performance, the younger members of the audience look bemused or indifferent. It’s telling too that a young guy in a rock band tells us that he’s just spent all his money to keep his amp working. “What else can we do?” he says, “We just want to play our music”.

It’s good that this portrait of Cuban life doesn’t come to us from Havana (though the opening images do – the film starts on the Malecon) because it gives us a different sense of Cuban society. With recent visits by the Pope and Barack Obama, the question of Cuba’s future comes ever more into the spotlight, so I hope this film gets more outings in Europe and North America as well as Latin America. This was its official UK première – another first for ¡Viva!

Useful trailer (but no English subs):

GFF16 #11: Speed Sisters (Palestine-Canada-US-UK-Qatar-Denmark 2015)

The team (from left): Marah, Noor, Maysoon, Betty and Mona.

The team (from left): Marah, Noor, Maysoon, Betty and Mona.

I was eagerly looking forward to my last film and it didn’t disappoint. At a superficial glance Speed Sisters might look like something made for a sports channel on cable TV – but it is so much more than that. It’s actually a well-shot and well-edited 80 minutes which explores a whole range of issues about sport, gender and politics in one of the most difficult parts of the world to discuss any of the three. And it’s very entertaining. Motor racing is expensive so inevitably the five women at the centre of this film are all to some extent ‘middle-class’ but that doesn’t really matter. They all face the same kinds of problems that affect the mass of Palestinians on a daily basis – and it’s actually quite refreshing to see Palestinian women who can assert themselves without having to play the roles of ‘victims’.

Speed Sisters is the first feature-length documentary by the Lebanese-Canadian director Amber Fares and she does a great job. Her approach was risky – to follow five women over the course of a couple of years, hoping that there would be a worthwhile narrative to be constructed from the footage collected. In the final edit there are stories about four of the five women with one, Mona, rather fading into the background – though this is because she races more for fun than to be a ‘winner’ as such. The other four comprise the ‘team manager’ Maysoon whose journey takes her into marriage with a Jordanian driver and the three real competitors Betty, Noor and Marah.

The film works on several levels, all of them challenging in terms of stereotypical views of life on the West Bank. The young women are engaged in what is called ‘street racing’. But this is the West Bank with little space for sporting activity of any kind and restrictions on the use of roads and the general movement of people. This sport therefore becomes a time trial involving manoeuvring road cars around a complex ‘track’ marked out on a public square, market space etc. The women compete alongside the men but their times are recorded for a separate Women’s Championship. Each event involves three ’rounds’ with dozens of competitors. It is interesting that while the women are enthusiastically supported by the men who work on the cars, they still suffer from the authoritarian rule of the men in charge of the sport – who seem to make up their own rules as they go along. Maysoon, who runs her own shop in Jerusalem, attempts to protect her team from the worst decisions but they still have an impact.

Marah's father and brothers watch her race. Photo by Amber Fares.

Marah’s father and brothers watch her race. Photo by Amber Fares.

Noor struggles to remember the correct route around the traffic cones and is often disqualified. Marah is, I think, the youngest driver – and arguably the best and most committed – but also the one who suffers most because of the changing rules. She is in some ways the hero of the narrative, living in Jenin in the North and passionately supported by her dad, who runs his own dental technician business. Betty, Palestinian-Mexican, wealthy and glamorous is the media favourite. It’s good to see that while there is intense rivalry, the women still support each other. The racing scenes are exciting and there is a terrific soundtrack:

While living in the Middle East, I also discovered a thriving, vibrant independent music scene. I wanted the Speed Sisters soundtrack to highlight some of these talented artists. The soundtrack needed to be authentic, fresh and as diverse as the Middle East. (Amber Fares)

Any kind of social activity in Palestine is difficult. At one point the team is attacked by Israeli soldiers when they drive near the wall. There is also a section of the film which makes an important point about the occupation. Noor and Betty have the ‘right kind of number plate’ that allows them to travel between Palestine and Israel, passing through checkpoints. One day they offer to take Marah to see the sea. Marah has to walk through the extensive border controls, with their long caged walkways, to meet the others on the other side. She’s never see the sea before (Jenin is only a short drive from the sea). When she gets to splash in the sea, it’s obvious that it has a profound effect on her.

Speed Sisters is a wonderful film. It’s released by Dogwoof in the UK on 25th March with various preview screenings lined up for International Women’s Day on March 8th. Don’t miss it!

Informative Press Notes here.

GFF16 #6: The Pearl Button (Chile-France-Spain-Switz 2015)

Images of the seas around Chile . . .

Images of the seas around Chile . . .

This is scheduled for a UK release in the next couple of weeks. It’s the best film I’ve seen this year and I’m now going to have to go back and watch director Patricio Guzmán’s previous film Nostalgia For the Light (2010). But then, Guzmán’s been making films since 1968 so I’ve got a lot to learn. Why is this film so good? Partly it is because of the sheer skill in combining sets of ideas – ideas about the importance of coastlines and water to the inhabitants of Chile, a long thin country with both the driest and wettest areas on earth; ideas about the culture of indigenous peoples and the genocide suffered under colonialism/imperialism; ideas about the Chilean version of fascism and the brutality of the smashing of democracy – so that a seamless narrative seems to be being constructed. It’s about the beauty and the horror of images, the testament of survivors, the honesty of those who ‘followed orders’ and so much more.

The film is only 82 minutes long but this is a beautifully-edited documentary that flows effortlessly and logically through its powerful arguments so you hardly realise just how much you are absorbing and learning. The ‘pearl button’ of the title is the tiny object that almost magically ties together the two historical narratives. I feel that I don’t want to reveal how the narrative works because that would spoil the impact of the connection. What struck me most forcefully (apart from all the facts about Chile that I didn’t know) was the terrible universality of the two historical narratives.

One of the surviving speakers of the Kawéskar language interviewed in the film

One of the surviving speakers of the Kawéskar language interviewed in the film

Before the arrival of the Europeans the indigenous peoples of the Patagonian archipelago had a developed nomadic maritime culture which was based on an understanding of astronomy and the seas around the islands. The people fished from canoes and moved freely between islands. The culture survived until the start of the 20th century when the few thousand strong Kawésqar nation was decimated by European diseases and attacks by settlers. Only a few survivors in the 21st century can still speak the language. Guzmán’s presentation of this history brings to mind Jauja (Argentina-Denmark 2014) and Indigenous films from Australia as well as other narratives from Africa and the rest of the Americas – I’m sure similar histories exist in parts of Asia as well. Guzman is something of an expert in uncovering the evidence of the brutality of the Pinochet regime in Chile from 1973 to 1990. Here he manages to link what happened to the supporters of the democratically-elected President Allende to the destruction of indigenous Patagonian culture. One of the major islands of the archipelago, Dawson Island was first used by Chilean settlers to intern indigenous people (the Selk’nam) evicted from land required for sheep grazing. After 1973 Pinochet used the island to intern civil servants and others associated with Allende and Guzman presents evidence that some of these internees were thrown into the sea from helicopters – a terrible symmetry in terms of the importance of the waters to Chile.

This film is riveting viewing, I hope it draws large audiences when it reaches cinemas. It comes out on March 18th in the UK from New Wave Films. Find out where it is playing near you from this website.