Category: Documentary

I’ve Got the Blues (Hong Kong 2018)

Angie Chen and Wong Yan-kwai . . . and the cat

This unusual documentary played at HOME in Manchester with a Q&A featuring the director Angie Chen. It was part of a mini-season of Ms Chen’s work and another contribution to HOME’s year-long programme presenting women  working in global cinema. Angie Chen, born in Shanghai, raised in Hong Kong and Taiwan, trained in the US and returned to work in Hong Kong Cinema in the 1980s as part of the Hong Kong New Wave.

I’ve Got the Blues is a very entertaining and thought-provoking work that ‘presents’ the artist Wong Yan-kwai, popularly known as ‘Yank’, and in doing so explores questions about how we might approach documentary films and film narratives more generally. What it doesn’t do is try to ‘explain’ or analyse Yank’s work as a painter. Partly that’s because he expressly forbids anyone filming him painting and also because he refuses to discuss what his paintings ‘mean’ or what they ‘represent’. He’s the one who says he simply ‘presents’ his work. The other aspect of his story which struck me forcibly is that he is clearly a very accomplished musician, photographer and writer with a deeply felt sense what it means to be an ‘artist’ (though he refuses that title!).

A rare shot of Yank at work

Yank went to Paris to study to be a painter and lived there for some time before returning to Hong Kong. He and Angie Chen have known each other since the 1990s. Angie said that although she knew Yank, she didn’t actually know that much about his life. She set out to make a documentary without knowing exactly what kind of film it might turn out to be. In turn Yank clearly didn’t want to be in a conventional film and he persistently thwarted the filmmaker. As well as refusing to be filmed during his work as a painter, he also challenged the filmmaker saying that she had an agenda and he would not go along with it. Angie Chen’s solution to this was quite neat. She organised a shoot of a meeting she had with Yank during which they both seemed to get angry, shouting at each other about what they would and wouldn’t do. She uses this scene close to the beginning of the film and close to its ending. She also persuaded Yank to film himself at work.

Yank with his guitar, surrounded by his work. Will Angie sing?

Once ‘in’ the film, Angie goes on to appear in it regularly, joining Yank for a trip to a Macau exhibition, joining a musical evening in which she sings the blues of the title with Yank on guitar and meeting his two grown-up daughters (at separate times). Yank is cantankerous but also playful and witty. Most of his interactions with friends are accompanied by what I can only describe as ‘heroic smoking and drinking’. Angie told us that sometimes shoots at his home or a local bar might go on until the early hours.

An impromptu ‘jam’. This might be in Macau?

Reflecting with Rona on the experience of watching the film and enjoying the lively Q&A chaired by Prof. Sarah Perks (who met Angie Chen many years ago on one of her regular trips to HK), we agreed on a couple of points. First, this is a fascinating film about documentary practice. I was surprised that Angie Chen suggested it was an unusual strategy for a documentary filmmaker to appear in her film. Perhaps I misunderstood what she said, but it is now quite a common practice to use what Stella Bruzzi calls the ‘performative’ mode of documentary (in New Documentary, Routledge 2006). Angie Chen is certainly a ‘player’ in her film, often acting as a form of provocateur – causing Yank to react in different ways. Second, although the doc. is well-structured and entertaining, there is a distinct tension between the playfulness of the Angie-Yank relationship and two narrative questions which are not resolved or ‘explained’. The first of these refers to Yank’s relationship with his daughters, seemingly with different mothers, both with French backgrounds. The mothers seem to be completely marginalised in the narrative without any comment whatsoever. The second intriguing question is about Yank’s politics, a topic explored very interestingly in a couple of scenes but then somehow left dangling. I would need another viewing to be clear about what was actually said. There is a Region 3 DVD from Hong Kong and there may be others available (that question came up in the Q&A).

I realise that I haven’t said anything about Wong Yan-kwai’s paintings but then that’s not really what the film is about. I do want to know more about his time in Paris and about his relationships and his politics. I also want to see more of the films by Angie Chen. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get to Manchester to see the other films Angie had brought with her from Hong Kong. I want to thank Angie Chen for bringing her film and entertaining us in the Q&A, Rachel Hayward and Andy Willis for organising the mini-season and Sarah Perks for chairing the Q&A. And I must not forget the cat, who tolerates Yank and often appears on screen with him.

Here’s a trailer for the film. It’s a good trailer that gives a sense of the film and intrigues the viewer:

(This posting has been edited to correct details of the event.)

¡Viva! 25 #5: A Journey to the Fumigated Towns (Viaje a los pueblos fumigados, Argentina 2017)

Fernando Solanos with the camera in a maternity unit for babies suffering from the effects of agri-toxins

Fernando Solanas is a veteran documentarist and political activist who is now an Argentinian Senator. Along with Octavio Getino he wrote the statement that formulated the concept of Third Cinema in 1969. Fifty years later Solanos is still attempting to make films that demonstrate a different voice and a different argument in global cinema. This new film is a detailed and coherent attack on multinational agri-business and its rape of the Argentinian ecology. As a film it does have flaws but they don’t prevent the powerful message from being communicated.

I had expected a documentary using various non-conventional devices to make its argument, but formally this is quite conventional with Solanos and his crew moving around Argentina, starting in the far north around Salta. The footage that is captured is almost low-res and I wonder if some of it was pre-digital video. Even the higher-res footage seems de-saturated at times and the overall impression is of greens and greys. The strength of the film is the ways in which different aspects of the central problem are explored in detail and then brought into the overall argument.

In the  beginning we see the felling of vast acreages of ‘centenarian forest’ and the burning of the stumps so that the land can be cleared for yet more soybean monoculture (Argentina is the third largest global producer of soybeans and a major exporter). The focus here is on several different but connected issues. The first of these is that the deforestation ignores the land rights of the local indigenous people the Wichí. Interviewed, one of the Wichí leaders says they have been living on the land for 200 years. As well as the large trees the bulldozers also uproot the smaller trees, one of which bears a fruit that is a major food source for the Wichí. Indigenous people seem to receive little support from local or national government in the face of actions by the large multinationals behind the deforestation. The film returns to the plight of indigenous people at the end of the film. The planting of soybeans is accompanied by heavy spraying of the crop with pesticides and fertilisers. Crops of various kinds are hybrid varieties and farmers are trapped by the large companies who are making profits, often benefiting from state-funded research into new seed varieties. Hybrid seeds cannot be saved for planting next year and farmers must buy new seed for each crop. Large bio-tech companies like Monsanto are going one-step further and genetically modifying cash crops to be able to withstand the toxins that kill insects. They have persuaded some governments that these GM seeds are produced by a unique process that can be patented so that the companies can charge even higher prices without fear of competition. (The same practice which operates in some pharmacy contexts – Monsanto is now owned by Bayer.) Monoculture also destroys jobs. Large acreages of a single crop are easily harvested by modern computer-controlled machinery. The groves of peaches that might have existed previously employed armies of pickers. Latin America has suffered heavily from the migration of the rural unemployed to already overcrowded cities.

A field of soybeans replaces woodland and its rich ecosystem

The new monoculture has other bad consequences. The ecological change has forced out beekeepers and the crop is now at the mercy of global prices for soybeans (and the oil and flour extracted). Like all monocultures, moving away from traditional and largely organic methods requires more inputs of fertilisers and insecticides. These are all noted by Solanos and his team as well as the impact of spraying which is often carelessly done by aerial delivery that allows spray to drift over schools and villages. The documentary extends this investigation to show that the high levels of spraying (fumigados) have created a major problem of agri-toxins entering the water supply and being ingested by large groups of people. As well as visiting hospital wards, the team led by Solanas interview many local people, including teachers and parents of young children and claims are also made about the damage to various groups of workers in silos, nurseries and transportation.

Having established the range of problems with the monoculture, the alternatives are also explored – mixed farming and organic farming/horticulture – before returning to the plight of indigenous peoples. There is some comedy in these sequences which leavens the relentless presentation of the damage being done. Solanas is offered a glass of ‘chlorophyll juice’ (a smoothie of wheat grass) which he reluctantly accepts and swallows, putting on a brave face. There is also a strange contradiction in two of the statements we hear. On the one hand we are told that the agri-toxins from spraying and run-offs into the water supply are everywhere in Argentina and everyone tested has traces of them in their bloodstream and on the other we are told that Argentina has more certified organic growing land than anywhere else. Perhaps I misread the subs?

Indigenous people lose their land and their access to food – marginalised yet again by authorities who do not support their rights

This film succeeds as a ‘social documentary’. It isn’t just about voiceover narration, facts and figures and talking head experts. Solanas and his crew travel to all parts and meet people and talk to them. Also important is the way the different issues are brought together. On the downside, I think some of the issues could be explained a little more clearly. I’m not sure what local audiences and other Latin American audiences will make of the film. From a European perspective and I should state, that of someone who has thirty years of practising organic horticulture, most of the issues in the film were familiar. What I learned was the detail of how indigenous people are once again marginalised and made almost invisible. The damage to eco-systems is a global problem (the palm oil plantations of South East Asia present some of the same issues) and it would seem to be that Argentina needs to strengthen regulation of agri-business practices to a considerable degree. It also makes me aware of the dangers facing the UK if we leave Europe and are pushed into trade deals without the same protection we have as part of the EU.

This documentary was followed by a discussion after its first screening at ¡Viva!. It would be interesting to know what was said. Below is a French trailer for the film and a snippet with English subs (which ends very abruptly):

I Often Think of Hawaii (Ich denke oft an Hawaii, Bundesrepublik Deutschland, 1978)

This was an experimental documentary that plays with style, representation and recreation. The subject is a young woman, Carmen who lives with her mother Ruth and brother Tito in a high-rise housing estate.

Her father, a Puerto Rican soldier, abandoned the family. All that is left to remind them of him is a handful of exotic postcards and his record collection of Caribbean and Hawaiian music.

The film is a documentary and includes observational film: for example Ruth leaving the tower block in the morning to go to work. We also see her and Carmen carrying out the cleaning duties involved. Then there are interviews, with Carmen, Ruth and Tito, talking direct to camera.

But these are intercut with far more oddball sequences. In these Carmen dresses up in flamboyant clothes and enacts fantasies for the camera;

I dream of a great love.

In other sequences the title is made sense as the collection of post-cards and records are presented. In the case of the records Carmen [for most] translates the lyrics, variously in English, Spanish and Portuguese, into German. The English sub-titles translate the German dialogue not the original sound tracks. Something similar happens when Carmen quotes poetry, here by Paul Éluard and another French poet.

The film mainly uses colour but some of the fantasies by Carmen are in black and white. The emphasis is on mid-shots and close-ups which generates a strongly subjective feel. The film runs for eighty-five minutes and nearly half of the film must be non-realist sequences. The film also lacks an obvious chronology which gives it a Brechtian feel. The film does have an opening and closing sequence, in both cases we see Carmen on the Berlin S-Bahn. It is as if the bulk of the film is a dream sequence.

The director Elfi Mikesch was there to introduce the film. She owns that the film was

“Inspired by the camp aesthetics of American (USA) underground films …”

This was her first film and she continued in a career that predominately worked on documentaries.

Some of the fantasy sequences have a definite kitsch sense. But there is also a sense of montage techniques in the manner of the Soviet avant-garde. Visually we have discontinuities and disruptions and aurally we have asymmetrical sound. This is really a melange of stylistic tropes.

In fact we were fortunate to see the film. It was shot of 16mm reversal stock and when the technicians at Deutsche Kinemathek came to attempt the restoration they found much of the print had decayed. But they were able to rescue the film and produced a digital restoration which we watched on a DCP.

I noted that this is very much Carmen’s world. Ruth, the mother, is mainly presented in terms of her work. The brother Tito appears several times talking to camera but I did not feel we learnt about his world. He did seem to be unsympathetic to Carmen’s point-of-view.

The setting of the film is important. The family lived in one of the towers in Berlin’s Gropiusstadt. This was a housing project designed by the modernist architect Walter Gropius. He was the founder of the famous Bauhaus School. This was a post-war housing complex designed along the lines and values of the Bauhaus. However other factors intervened. The erection of the Berlin Wall restricted the space for building which resulted in tall tower blocks. Apparently by the 1970s the complex was dominated by poor families with the resultant economic and social problems. As a background to this portrait the sense of that area was important.

I did notice one oddity in the Brochure, which suggested that Carmen’s ‘tropical world’ provided a counter-point to the ‘barren projects’;

. . . it suddenly seemed as if the conditions in these petty bourgeois living rooms could, in fact, be changed.

Everything about Ruth, her work, and her children, as indeed about the projects, suggested a working class environment. I suspect the reference to ‘petty bourgeois’ refers to the content of Carmen’s dreams of escape.

The film was also the object of a particular discussion in a seminar organised by Deutsche Kinemathek. ‘The Translation of Films’. This engaged with the

the translation of films into other languages . . .

including both the silent and sound eras. So,

director Elfi Mikesch. film restorer Julia Wallmüller, and translator Rebekah Smith will discuss the subtitles created for the 2018 digitally restored version [of this title] . . . A comparison of the new subtitles and the ones from the film’s release year demonstrate how standards and available methods have changed over the years . . . (Retrospective Brochure)

It was clear that the new subtitles offered a more accurate rendering of the German and also that they fitted into the editing of the film more effectively. Unfortunately there is no surviving material about the process of translation in 1978. But comparing clips demonstrated that the titling did not give complete rendering of the German. Rebekah and Julia made the point that modern digital methods enabled a higher degree of pinpoint accuracy in inserting these titles.

Elfi Mikesch made an interesting comment that she had felt that the 1978 subtitles made the film seem slower and longer. Unfortunately there was not an opportunity to explore this issue further. I had to leave for another screening but a friend advised me that the discussion only considered the issues around subtitles. So it seems there was no discussion of the translation from several languages into German; in that case German viewers heard not the original but a translator version; and English language viewers would be twice removed from the original lyrics of the songs and the words of the poetry.

So this is a complex issues that only in the last decade has become the subject of detailed research. The film was interesting in its own right as an example of avant-garde cinema and with its portrait of a subjective take on a particular place and people in 1970s Germany. But as a ‘text’ it offered an object for exploring the medium of cinema.

Berlin – Prenzlauer Berg (Deutschland 1990)

The actual full title is Encounters between 1st of May and 1st July of 1990 / Begegnungen Zwischen dem 1. Mai und dem 1. Juli 1990. This documentary offers a portrait of one area in that hiatus between the capitulation of the DDR and the formal reunification of Germany.

bracketed chronologically by International Workers Day and the monetary and economic unification of the two Germanys. Retrospective Brochure).

The district of Prenzlauer Berg is close to the centre of Berlin and dates from the 1920s. Its population is now about 160,000. In 1990 part of the district ran right up against the dividing wall.

We meet a rock band playing on abandoned east German border territory, Antifascist demonstrators from both sides of the Berlin Wall, and squatters trying to turn an occupied building into a cultural centre.

This is what the Brochure calls the ‘short summer of anarchy’.

In between these actions we see an hear from local residents. Seniors at a dancing session; bohemians involved in squatting along with transvestites; women workers at what was a state run textile factory; and owners/managers of a clothing store and snack bar. In the early stages of the film the sense of anarchy is powerful. Institutions appear to have stop operating. Some people carry on as before, like the dancing pensioners,; others strike a radical new note as with the squatters.

But in the latter stages as unification approaches the economic dominates. The Osmark (East German currency) is replaced by the West German mark. On July 1st suddenly people must change over their currencies, bearing in mind the exchange value. For ordinary citizens the rate was at par; but large holdings were at lower rates. The liveliness in the film is replaced by emptier streets. It is early in the day but it seems like a metaphor of the uncertainty for people.

The director Petra Tschörtner worked with cinematographer Michael Lösche and then editor Angelika Arnold to produce this tapestry of activities and people. We saw the film in its original format of of 35mm. The director commented

I wanted to document the special attitude towards life in this neighbourhood. The people of Prenzlauer Berg always tolerated greater freedom of action than others.

The local people appear to have enjoyed the licence and freedom associated with Carnival. The area itself is changing, not necessarily for the better. The final shot is of a demolished building disappearing in clouds of dust. An ambiguous symbol of the changes.