This recent music doc/biopic offers an interesting comparison with 20 Feet From Stardom (US 2013). Whereas that film seemed to me to have wonderful material but lacked a clear focus, this documentary knew exactly what it was doing and achieved a great deal with the limited material available. I have to confess a strong sense of nostalgia watching the film about the brief career of Janis Joplin which lasted not much longer than four years. The performances on film look better now than I remembered from earlier films and I learned quite a bit more about the difficult life that Janis had – and the tragic circumstances of her death.
This Janis Joplin doc arrived in cinemas just a few months after Amy, the Amy Winehouse doc. Both films must have been in production at the same time so I don’t see one prompting the other. It is remarkable though that the ‘last acts’ of the two films feature the same event. Both young women died from an overdose at the age of 27 (Winehouse in 2011). Janis died in 1970 a few weeks after Jimi Hendrix and a few months before Jim Morrison. Both these young men were also 27. The big difference between the Joplin and Winehouse docs is that the latter includes lots of ‘found footage’ , including social media footage as well as ‘mainstream media’, whereas there are relatively few filmed recordings of Joplin apart from the three well-known festival films.
Janis Joplin was born in the Texas town of Port Arthur, close to the Louisiana border, in 1943 into a middle-class family. She was a misfit at school who discovered she could sing at 17. Her singing career started in Austin but didn’t really begin to develop until she moved to San Francisco in 1963. Even then she lasted only two years before returning to Port Arthur to ‘clean up her act’. She finally made it when she returned to San Francisco in 1966. Over the next four years she sang with three bands and recorded four LPs, the last one, ‘Pearl’, being released posthumously (a double LP of live recordings then appeared in 1972). Joplin was first signed as the singer for Big Brother & The Holding Company (first two LPs) and then became a solo artist backed by first the Kozmic Blues Band and then the Full Tilt Boogie Band. She died in her motel room during the recording of ‘Pearl’. The cause of death was an overdose of heroin, assumed to be accidental (the drug may have been more potent than she expected).
Three of Joplin’s festival performances at Monterey (1967), Woodstock (1970) and on the Festival Express train across Canada (1970) were filmed and subsequently appeared as theatrical documentaries, the first two a few months after the festival in question. The Festival Express material was released as a documentary film in 2003. Various live footage sequences appeared in a Canadian documentary, Janis in 1974 and this is the film I saw in the cinema in 1975. There are numerous other DVDs of her performances but only the four cinema features, I think. There was a fictional biopic The Rose (US 1979) directed by Mark Rydell. This commercially successful film is only loosely based on Joplin’s story (it was initially known as ‘The Pearl’) but was recognised as such by audiences (without taking anything away from Bette Midler’s star-making performance in the lead role).
The director of Janis: Little Girl Blue is Amy Berg, an experienced documentarist and director of at least one interesting-sounding fiction feature. The film also has a host of producers including Alex Gibney, known for high-profile docs such as Finding Fela (2014) and Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (2015). It’s not surprising then that this Janis doc works so well. Berg’s focus is clearly on Janis as a young woman finding her way in the world and this forms the narrative spine using the letters that Janis wrote home and a scrapbook of newspaper cuttings and still photos (which seem to jump out from the screen when set in the context of grainy home movie footage and 1960s TV news and features shot on 16mm). The authorial voice of Janis is provided very effectively by Chan Marshall (a.k.a. the singer Cat Power). Events back in Port Arthur are narrated by Janis’ younger siblings Laura and Michael and by one or two old schoolfriends. Events in San Francisco are covered by a slew of taking heads including friends and lovers and band members plus other media figures such as CBS CEO Clive Davis, talk show host Dick Cavett and documentary filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker (who made Monterey Pop and tells us how he deliberately sought out Cass Elliott in the audience because he knew about the rivalry between the LA and SF acts – Mama Cass was suitably impressed by Janis). The one recurring image in the film is the single line railway track, presumably seen from the Festival Express train as it moves across Canada. This occurs at regular intervals in the film, seemingly functioning as a marker for the change from one sequence to another. I’m not sure if the symbolic readings of this image are intentional but it might refer to the trajectory of the short life of Janis Joplin – straight down the line as if decreed by fate.
Many of these films about performers and celebrities seek out the flaws in character or attempt to find those responsible so that a life becomes more like a mystery in a film noir. I don’t think this happens with Little Girl Blue, which feels like a humanist drama. Most of those interviewed are appreciative about Janis’ talent and her dedication to her art. She was let down by the men in her life and the party girl was more often the lonely girl. The film doesn’t analyse the music but presents it (with access to rights agreed by Sony) in ways which enable us to understand why it generated such interest. It certainly sent me back to the performances (and I realised that I knew some of her ‘between songs’ tales almost by heart on the live album). It is this sense of the rapport Janis had with her audience that stands out. She seems to have been happiest on stage – and lonely when the show ended. There is also a strong feminist sub-text about a young woman whose confidence was undermined by the cruel jibes about her looks made by university students in Austin when she first began to perform. She must have welcomed the chance to take on the guise of the hippy mama who could dress as she pleased – partly as a release from the restraints of her conventional home background.
Coming from a town with its own Klu Klux Klan chapter, Janis would have been conscious of her other identity shift which involved discovering Bessie Smith and Aretha Franklin and being wowed by Otis Redding. Perhaps this where the film’s lack of deep analysis of Janis’ musical career is a weakness. I think you need to know a lot about American popular roots music in the 1960s and 1970s to understand the changes in the music Janis Joplin made and what she was most comfortable with.
After I’d seen this documentary, I came across a 2000 BBC documentary about Janis from the ‘Reputations’ series narrated by Tracy Macleod. At 48 minutes it is much shorter but actually much more informative about Janis’ life as a teenager in Port Arthur and her time in San Francisco. I think that I’ve also left out the Joplin parents in my account above. They didn’t take to the music Janis was producing or her lifestyle, but they were still supportive when she needed them. I recommend watching the shorter documentary (link below) in conjunction with Little Girl Blue.
Film 4 in the UK began a week of documentary screenings, kicking off with this Oscar-winning film about some of the most revered ‘backing singers’ of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. I enjoyed the film which features some of the faces and the lives of the great singers who are often in the background as performers. Viewed objectively, however, it seemed to me that the film’s narrative was poorly constructed and we didn’t learn as much as we might about the dilemmas facing such singers, the industry in which they worked and the technical details about their performances. Later, I also came across the claims that some of the testimonies by the singers were perhaps misleading.
The film’s director, Morgan Neville, is a very experienced director of popular music documentaries, mostly for US TV, I think. He has explored a range of popular music forms – different genres, eras, stars etc. so I was a little surprised by some of the film’s missed tricks. The film focuses on a group of mainly African-American women, many the daughters of families rooted in gospel music and the church. Darlene Love, Claudia Lennear, Merry Clayton, Judith Hill and Lisa Fischer provide the main focus but there are others as well. We find out something about the stories of each of these women and also hear the commendations of stars like Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder and Sting as well as record producer Lou Adler and various other industry personnel. My suspicion is that Neville and his team got carried away with some of the great stories that these women could tell and didn’t spend long enough working out what kind of narrative they wanted to construct. The film as a whole lacks a clear focus. Darlene Love has the longest and most emotional story – and she bears the brunt of the negative comments about her time contracted to Phil Spector. I did know about her problems with Spector (shared by many others) and she may well have ’embroidered’ her account a little, but she certainly deserves to be cut some slack.
One possibility might have been to explore the questions about race and gender in the industry a little more overtly. There is plenty of material but the only reference that is underlined is when Merry Clayton describes her own reaction to being asked to sing on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ (the film shows a Skynyrd performance with a Confederate flag as a backdrop). Later Ms Clayton is shown singing her version of ‘Southern Man’, the Neil Young song that prompted the Skynyrd backlash. There are also two references to white performers seeking out black backing singers to give the music more ‘soul’. The first explains that white backing singers were known as ‘readers’ because they could perform any song – but not necessarily ‘feel’ the music. The second reference is to the British singers like Mick Jagger and Joe Cocker who might need an addition of ‘authentic’ voices as white boys singing black music songs. Both these statements needed more examination, I think. The film uses rock for many of its examples and there is a familiar suggestion that while Spector, Ray Charles and Ike Turner may have exploited attractive young black women as singers (and dancers), the British acts tended to treat them more as professional performers. This matches similar claims about Tamla and Stax performers who were more appreciated by white UK audiences than white US audiences in the early years – and the claim that bands like the Stones helped to resurrect the careers of some of the blues acts (and made sure that they earned royalties). This may be just a romantic notion promoted by British journalists, but needs investigating. More pertinent is why none of the well-known black music journalists and scholars are interviewed about the racism in the industry.
The other central issue in the film is the question about why these performers, who clearly have great voices and great musical skills, have not become stars in their own right as solo performers or leading members of vocal groups. There are suggestions and the issue is explored. The one moment when a visual image seems to comment on the argument is when some of the industry personnel and Sting (who appears in awe of Lisa Fischer’s voice) suggests that the real ‘kick’ in singing together with other people is the feeling that your voice is melding with others and the experience becomes ‘spiritual’. We then see a flock of birds (are they starlings?) swarming together in a night sky and then breaking up again, only to reform their ‘murmurations’. This seems the moment when we really might get to an understanding of why some singers emerge as stars and sustain a career. We might argue that although some of the great backing singers have got better singing skills than the stars, they perhaps haven’t got the ego or the drive to be the star out front – or they recognise what to do but don’t want to ‘play the game? Sting is a singer whose music doesn’t always work for me and he has an image that suggests pretentiousness, but in his comments in this section he makes a lot of sense and is worth listening to. He argues that success depends on more than having the talent, the voice and the performance skills. He suggests that sometimes it’s just circumstances, chance/luck – his point is that those who succeed recognise this and deal with it. But just when this kind of analysis gets interesting it stops when someone suggests that it is autotuning that has changed the industry and record producers no longer need great singers if they can digitally manipulate the voice of someone who works as a celebrity/star.
I think this film operates at the level of a standard TV music documentary, albeit with a high level of performance clips and talking head interviews. The subject could also have been explored in relation to a wider range of industry practice issues. For instance, nearly all the examples derive from either rock music or major acts of R+B/soul music. It might be interesting to compare the use of other voices in aspects of traditional country, country-folk and country rock where typically backing vocals are supplied by other singers of equal status. Why is this? I remember a BBC4 documentary on the recordings by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris as ‘Trio’. The three voices came together beautifully but the three albums of material were spread over many years because each singer was contracted to different record labels. For live performances there were not as many problems perhaps? I suppose I’m saying that the film stimulates lots of debates but doesn’t know which is the focus and can’t cover them all in a satisfying way.
20 Feet From Stardom inhabits similar territory to Standing in the Shadows of Motown (US 2002) and also Secret Voices of Hollywood (UK 2013) about the dubbing of Hollywood musicals by singers who were not credited at the time. All these films are worth watching, but for an emotional documentary narrative about a singer who struggled for years to achieve the acclaim that her performances deserved, I’d go for Miss Sharon Jones! (US 2015), the story of the late Miss Jones and the Dap Kings.
This film in HOME’s ‘Not Just Bollywood’ season is an award-winning documentary from Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya who together seem to have been involved in most aspects of the film’s production. Amit Madheshiya is a photographer based in Mumbai who had already received prizes for his work photographing travelling cinemas before he and Shirley Abraham worked on a film documentary. Both filmmakers received an M.A. from the Mass Communication Research Centre at New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University in 2006 and then worked on globally-funded arts projects. This film also received support from the Sundance Film Festival.
Although largely ignored in conventional film studies, travelling cinemas and similar activities have attracted the attention of ethnographers because of the curious mix of arts, religion and rural culture that surrounds the subject. It isn’t difficult to see how the film came to be listed for so many prizes and indeed to win several. The material is very engaging and the documentary style is handled authoritatively but lightly – a great achievement for first time filmmakers who have referred to taking advice from books and Sundance tutors at an Edit Lab. I would term the style ‘Direct Cinema’, going back to the classic 1960s work of Robert Drew, Richard Leacock and others. This is often confused with ciné vérité and there is a useful distinction between the two on the IDEAS ∣ FILM website. Direct Cinema implies that nothing gets in between the event and the camera eye, so no appearances or commentaries by the filmmakers or ‘the voice of God’.
The film’s narrative is carried by three ‘characters’. Mohammed and Bapu are both travelling cinema exhibitors and the third character is Prakash who has spent many years in his workshop maintaining and re-building cinema projectors. These kinds of travelling cinemas have been operating for seventy years or so in parts of eastern Maharashtra, 100 kilometres or more inland from Mumbai. It is a seasonal business and the exhibitors use a lorry (truck) to transport projection equipment in parts that is then re-assembled on site and films are projected from the bed of the truck onto a canvas screen erected in a large circus-style tent. Or at least, that’s how Mohammed manages it. Bapu’s truck is so vintage that the engine no longer operates and the truck is towed into place by a tractor. The two operators each have a different approach. Bapu attracts kids and lets them in free as the audience of the future – the children are allowed to use a microphone like a fairground barker to attract the main audience in the villages presumably close to his base. Mohammed has a larger crew and his is a more commercial operation which tries to show as many screenings as possible before moving on to the next fair.
Fairs/festivals are common across India in cities and in rural areas. The specific fairs in this region where Mohammed operates may in the past have had a primary religious purpose, but some now seem to be as much about entertainment. As a venue for cinema exhibition they form part of the huge diversity of Indian film culture from modern multiplexes in the metros to traditional single screen cinemas in smaller centres and to ‘B’ and ‘C’ circuit cinemas as well as video screenings and mobile cinemas, outdoor screenings etc. The films are equally varied with some relatively recent mainstream films, some more ancient and in one tent what appears to be soft porn.
Part of the real pleasure of the film is in following the process of putting on a screening and seeing how the exhibitors cope with all the usual problems of exhibition – keeping the audience on side when the reels of film arrive late, keeping ancient projectors working and making sure the projectionists treat the equipment with care. The inclusion of Prakash is a good choice as his enthusiasm and his skill in dealing with projectors shines through as he demonstrates his own, hand-built projector with all kinds of refinements for perfect running. Sadly, it will probably never be used because this documentary has been made during the period when even travelling cinemas have been forced to abandon 35mm film projection and move towards digital. India has a thriving ‘E’ cinema culture which runs in parallel with Hollywood’s ‘D’ cinema system. That means cheaper projectors and laptops rather than the DCP projection. Even so, the cost of new equipment is a shock for Mohammed and the familiar problems about licence keys and software upgrades still need to be solved – and that’s not easy without local broadband connections. All this sounds like it might be the end for Prakash – a sprightly man in his 70s, immaculately turned out in his workshop. But fear not, he’s got his future sussed and his family won’t go hungry.
The Cinema Travellers is a joy to watch and deserves the interest and praise it is attracting. We do get to learn a lot about the ‘business’, but I would have liked more. I’m assuming that many of the cinema crews and audience members are speaking Marathi but I’m not sure whether the films shown are Hindi or Marathi (I’m assuming a mix?). I think for audiences outside India it is difficult to grasp how cinema distribution and exhibition works for the people in the film. Many reviews refer to ‘remote communities’. I’m not sure that these villages are ‘remote’ – they are just far away enough from a town to make going to a ‘standing’ cinema impractical. We hear how people are now watching films on their phones and we see families watching TV. Is it the social aspect, the getting away from family that makes this type of exhibition still viable, albeit on a much smaller scale than in the past? My feeling is that this documentary (as distinct from the larger project for the co-directors) aims for the universal story of the small operator struggling to keep a business going than it does for ‘documenting’ an industry practice. Which is fine if it is done with the skill and artistic flair presented here.
Here is a Cannes Report that introduces the filmmakers and a glimpse of the film:
. . . and here are the filmmakers in Heidelberg reflecting on their long-term project investigating the cultural activity of travelling cinemas:
“This year, from 7-10 September, Heritage Open Days is back to shine a light on England’s fascinating historic places. This annual festival celebrates our diverse history, architecture and culture, offering you the chance to see hidden places and try out new experiences all for free.”
On Sunday, September 10th, film fans had a chance to explore the Hyde Park Picture House as part of a Heritage event. Between 1000 and 1500 they could enjoy the beauty of the cinema auditorium, one of the finest surviving examples in Britain, with its distinctive gas lighting. There was screening a looped visual presentation of memorabilia associated with the cinema. And in the foyer a copy of the cinema Log Books donated by the family of one of the original founders of the cinema in 1916. This was the 1919 log book and included among the titles were films starring Geraldine Farrar. She was a star singer with the Metropolitan Opera in New York and launched into films in Cecil B. De Mille’s famous version of Carmen (1915). By 1919 she usually worked with the director Reg Barker in productions with the Goldwyn Company.
There were also conducted tours of the Projection Room every half-an-hour: including the 35mm projectors. The Cinemeccanica Victoria 8 projectors came from the Lounge Cinema [sadly converted into bars and fast food outlets], fine specimens of a species that is in danger of extinction. These tours are a little like the recently screened German silent film, Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt (1927): just as the Berlin of 1927 is no longer, the Picture House will soon be remodelled thanks to a Heritage Lottery Fund Award.
Appropriately there followed screening of 35mm films. These were all the work of the ‘Poet of British Cinema’, Humphrey Jennings. This was package prepared by the British Film Institute from the National Film Archive and titled ‘Their Finest Hour’. Jennings films are beautifully crafted and imaginative portraits of Britain in the 1930s and 1940s and combine vision and sound in a distinctive manner. They display often unexpected juxtapositions, a sign of Jennings’ admiration for the Surrealist Movement.
The programme opened with a documentary influenced by his work with the Mass Observation Movement and then offered three of his wartime films, the period when he achieved the peak of his poetic representations
First was Spare Time (1939, 13 minutes) which visits several regions in 1930s Britain to examine the culture of ordinary working people. The commentary is by Laurie Lee, another poet. The film mirrors the anthropological concerns of Mass Observation. This is very much an observational mode. Jennings and his team of the cameraman Henry Fowle and sound recordist Vorke Scarlett worked for the GPO Film Unit under producer Alberto Cavalcanti. The film was commissioned for the British Pavilion at the New York World Fair. In a sense propaganda for the ‘US cousins’, a stance that was part of Jennings war work as well.
This is what is has been termed an ‘associational documentary’. It lacks the explicit social commentary of the Griersonian films, relying more on the connections between people, objects and settings. The theme in the words of Laurie Lee offers
“as things are, Spare Time is a time when we have a chance to do what we like, a chance to be most ourselves”
So there is an sub-text about labour and working people. This is reinforced in the visual style of the film where actual labour tends to appear in static shots whilst camera movements are more likely for people’s leisure activities.
There are three sections. In Sheffield we meet the steel industry and then the pastimes organised round the three-shift system. We see and hear a local brass band, visit a pub, see the walking of whippets and the release of pigeons, a cycling party and a crowded and popular football match.
Then to Manchester and Bolton where the cotton industry is based with weekend leisure. The most famous sequence of a Kazoo band was most likely shot in Rotherham and before the production included Jennings. Then we visit the Belle Vue Zoo, see children in the street and a ballroom where the dance floor soon fills with the couples circling to a band.
Finally we visit Pontypridd and the coal collieries. A hooter accompanies the pithead and then the evening fun at a fair. The sequence is mainly in low key lighting. An amateur choir assembles and starts to sing Handel’s ‘Largo’. The music follows as the camera shows us streets and shoppers, then a youth club match and, as the evening passes, the start of mealtime.
The various musical troupes overlap the visual source to provide the accompanying track, punctuated by industrial noise. The film opens and closes with recorded music and the words of Laurie Lee. He also introduces each section The inconspicuous camera records the events, at one point observing as the pianist with the choir slips out of her coat whilst commencing the accompaniment. We see a family preparing to dine on a magnificent meat pie. There are several relaxed scenes in public houses. The Welsh section includes a notable tracking shop down a street. otherwise the camera relies mainly on long shots and ‘plain American’, with straight cuts and just the occasional dissolve. The film was edited by Jennings, there is no other person credited. And the cuts between sequences weaves a tapestry whilst the commentary sets up the separates sections and the finale.
Then the wartime film Words for Battle (1941, 8 minutes): documentary footage of Britain during the Blitz is accompanied by a selection of poetry and prose read by Lawrence Olivier.
The film was produced by the Crown Film Unit under the auspices of the Ministry of Information. This is a ‘compilation’ documentary. The film intercuts short scenes of town and rural life – Westminster Abbey, evacuated children in the countryside – with scenes of military action, fighter pilots on an aerodrome, destroyers at sea.
The film appears to be completely based on ‘found footage’. it was constructed by Jennings with Stewart McAllister as editor. McAllister is a key member of the production team in the war-time films and brings a precision to the cutting of and between images,. He also brings a complex treatment to the tapestry of sound that accompanies the images. The war time films directed by Jennings use noise and music as well as words and this melange is increasingly complex. The soundtrack includes music by Beethoven and Handel, but the important part is the prose and poetry read by Olivier.
The C16th Britannia accompanies a map from that period. Then we hear selections from John Milton, Williams Blake, Robert Browning and Rudyard Kipling: a rather unusual combination. The film moves on to Winston Churchill’s famous address to the House of Commons ‘We shall fight on the beaches’, [also featured in the recent ‘Dunkirk’]. And finally we hear words from Abraham Lincoln’s Address following the Battle of Gettysburg. The last opines widely held beliefs in ‘western democracies’. But the word accompany tanks passing the statue of Lincoln in Parliament Square: a clear pitch to the allies across the Atlantic.
The Silent Village (1943, 36 minutes) is a retelling of the massacre by the Nazi occupiers of the Czech villagers of Lidice [a mining community] in 1942. This was notorious event carried out as retribution for the assassination of the Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich. Jennings and his team relocate the events to a Welsh mining village (Cwmgiedd) with the local inhabitants playing the population under Nazi occupation and becoming the victims of their terrorism .
The suggestion for the film was made by exiled Czech officials to the Ministry of Information. This was a Crown Film Unit production. Jennings is credited with both script and direction. And his colleagues on the film are the familiar and experienced team, with Stewart McAllister as editor, H. E. Fowle as cameraman. Ken Cameron is the sound recordist.
The film opens with an aural and visual introduction to the world of a mining village in a Welsh valley. This is typical of Jennings work and it weaves sounds and images to produce an effective portrait of the mining community. The film uses both English and Welsh, without any subtitles for the latter language: in fact, the words are not necessary. This, as in other wartime films, uses ‘actual sound’ as well as ‘found sound’; an important aspect of the films. Then the German occupation arrives. As the narrative develops their repressive tactics increase. With the news of the assassination we reach the stage of reprisals. This involves the deportation of women and children and the murder of all the adult males. We do not see the actual execution but hear the gunfire as the men defiantly sing ‘Land of our Fathers’.
The entire cast are non-professional and the film is a fine example of how effectively Jennings and his team work with ordinary people. The sense of place is reinforced by the coupling of images of people with images of settings and objects which combine to effect a sense of a recognisable place and community. The accompanying sounds – industrial, domestic, rural – add to the effectiveness of this.
And finally Listen to Britain (1942, 20 minutes) is one of the true masterpieces of British cinema. Jennings and his colleagues weave a tapestry of documentary footage, dialogue, sound and music to present the Home Front of a Britain at War.
The production team is the now familiar one – McAllister, Fowle, Cameron – with an editor at the Crown Film Unit, John Krish, assisting. Once more we have the inter-weaving of actual and found footage with actual and found sound, including recorded music. And once more Jennings and his team display their unrivalled ability to capture ordinary people carrying out ordinary actions: though in extraordinary times.
The film opens with a pitch to the North American audience by Leonard Brockington. But then we move into the film proper, relying completely on the sounds and images of Britain and its people.
It is evening and we are presented with the British countryside. Then a Spitfire flies low over the scene. The film progresses through the night and on to the evening of the following day. In the course of the film we see countryside people, town and city people, factory workers, troops and the military. And we see these people both at work and at play. Among the famous settings are a grand ballroom packed with dancers; a wartime factory and the lunchtime canteen concert; in parallel the National Gallery in London and a concert of classical music. This provides a seamless tapestry of British wartime life. The film glosses over differences of class, gender and place. The one anachronism, as the film ends we hear ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ on the sound track: a false note which I suspect was dictated by producers rather than the actual filmmakers.
All these films are in black and white. They famously made Jennings an undoubted ‘auteur’ for British film . But the subtle developments apparent in the war-time films point to the importance of the contributions by Fowle, McAllister and Cameron. Jennings would seem to bring an overall form and the recurring themes.He has been criticised as ‘patronising’. But I think it is more that he remains an outsider but one with real empathy for the subjects of the films. What is apparent is that the films offer an ‘imagined community’, smoothing out troubling wrinkles and contradictions such as class. The war time films in particular embrace the notion of ‘A People’s War’; a concept that is closer to notions of propaganda than actuality. But the films do generate a sense of authenticity that was powerful at the time and which remain abiding images of Britain’s past.
This superb documentary on James Baldwin, who died in 1987, is timely in the light of the neo-Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville earlier this month. Baldwin was an important figure in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. He refused to align himself with the radical Black Panthers, Martin Luther King, NAACP (which he deemed middle class) or Malcolm X but, through his articulate arguments and his feted novels, offered an intellectual perspective on racism. Raoul Peck’s film intermingles archive footage, much of it of Baldwin speaking for himself, with Samuel L. Jackson’s (beautiful) voiceover speaking Baldwin’s words.
The film uses the unfinished Remember This House as its starting point. Here Baldwin was trying to come to terms with the deaths of King, X and Medger Evers who was murdered by white supremacist, Byron De La Beckwith; it took 30 years for Beckwith to be convicted. Whilst this may seem to be dilatory justice the American judicial system, as the Black Lives Matter campaign illustrates, is still highly reluctant to convict when the victim is black. One of the most notorious incidents in recent years is Trayvon Martin, shot in the chest by a vigilante, George Zimmerman, who was unbelievably found ‘not guilty’ of murder. Peck intersperses the film with examples such as Martin’s to illustrate that racism is still destroying lives. At Charlottesville, social media footage shows, a supremacist shouted “Nigger” and then fired a gun at protestors; the police did not intervene.
During the 1960s it must have seemed that, through the Civil Rights protests (see Selma for example), things were going to get better for minorities. However, what has become clear, although there have been improvements in equality with the abolition of Jim Crow laws, racism is still endemic (see 13th) and the increased profile of neo Nazis is symptomatic of this. In the film there is footage of 1960s racist protests which include banners emblazoned with the swastika . I’m not sure what is most shocking, the neo Nazis of today or those of the ’60s, just 20 years after the end of the war in which Americans had died fighting against fascism.
Baldwin’s sophisticated analysis of racism, including much on cinema from his book The Devil Finds Work (1976), concludes with the statement that black people know more about whites than whites do about black because white people don’t see blacks as people. Whites are the ones who invented the ‘nigger’ and, Baldwin asks, what is it about white people that led them to do this? What is their problem?
We saw The Eagle Huntress back in January and though I enjoyed the film there were several things about it that made me circumspect. It purported to be a documentary about a young teenage girl in Mongolia training an eagle, flying it at a festival and taking it on a hunt. The film was ‘presented by’ Daisy Ridley and championed as an example of ‘girl power’. When I began to research the background to the film I realised that it would make an interesting case study for film and media students and I wrote a short piece for the MediaMagazine (a publication for 16-19 year-olds taking A Level Film/Media Studies). Unfortunately MediaMagazine is only accessible online to subscribers and its production cycle is quite long. I feared that the film might disappear from view before the magazine reached schools and colleges.
What I hadn’t realised was just how strongly some of the film’s critics felt about what they were beginning to discover about the film’s production and distribution. After my original posting I began to receive tweets from one of the principal investigators, Meghan Fitz-James in Vancouver, and from others. I found myself re-writing the original post and also publishing some of the comments I received. You can find the post and comments on https://itpworld.wordpress.com/2017/01/09/the-eagle-huntress-uk-mongolia-us-2016/. Since then, Meghan has kept working and kept exposing more aspects of the story. You can access all of her work via her twitter feed @MeghanfjFitz. What she has discovered is another example of a familiar story that has been told about supposedly ‘documentary’ filmmaking going back 100 years or more, but in 2017 is seen in the context of social media and a new level of globalised exploitation of people and cultures.
The background to the controversy is neatly set out in the (English language) clip from France TV above. I’m not surprised by the evidence that has been uncovered but I am amazed by what it is possible to find using social media and internet searches (and a great deal of effort and no little expense). The research also includes visits to Mongolia and direct contact with some of the key figures in the story. Thinking about the ways in which the filmmaker Otto Bell and his various collaborators on the production and subsequent distribution of the film have gone about their business, I’m conscious of the failure of film studies to properly educate audiences about what they are watching.
Film studies has explored how documentaries have been made and has classified the different documentary modes that have developed since the 1920s. We’ve known and accepted for a long time that documentaries may include ‘re-constructions’. It’s not the practice itself that’s an issue, it’s the deception – the attempt to pass something off as ‘real’. In the last twenty to thirty years, two things have happened alongside the development of digital technologies. Firstly, the explosion of forms of ‘reality TV’ and ‘infotainment’ have undermined the sense and purpose of traditional documentary practice. Secondly, the ability to create digital images that appear ‘real’ but have actually been created not through a camera but by photo software has discredited ‘photographic realism’ so that for many, ‘realism’ is no longer an issue.
Alongside this undermining of documentary as a practice that can inform as well as create art is the gradual de-politicisation of film and media education. In this respect, the furore created by the investigators of the production of Eagle Huntress has demonstrated that film studies needs cultural studies and social anthropology to engage with the subjects of this kind of documentary narrative. It is also important to confront the adoption of ‘girlpower’ as a promotional and marketing tool rather than a liberating ideology for young women in different cultures and to recognise the perils of an ‘orientalist’ approach to stories set in parts of Asia that are not regularly represented in western media. What saddens me also is that a public agency such as the British Film Institute should have helped to fund distribution of a film like this without first investigating the story behind it. At least the BBC has carried reports that contest aspects of the film’s story. We all need to be careful as we watch and enjoy films and then sit down to write about them.
This is a social problem/campaign documentary written and directed by Paul Sng. It is produced by his Brighton-based company Velvet Joy Productions. It presumably had a small budget and, like his earlier feature Sleaford Mods – Invisible Britain (2015), it relies on distributing directly to exhibitors. The film’s WebPages offer an overview of the film, a trailer and a list of (at least some) of the campaign groups associated with the film and the issue.
Essentially the film has a fairly conventional form: interviews direct camera; audio interviews played over stills and found footage, directly filmed footage for the production, on-screen titles, graphs and visual data and a commentary, read by Maxine Peake.
Broadly speaking the film has three sections. The opening sets out the problems associated with social housing in contemporary Britain. We hear from both people with detailed knowledge and ordinary people experiencing social housing. The middle and longest section is a series of case studies, again with interviews from professionals and ordinary residents and film of the social housing in question: in some cases low-rise estates, more frequently tower blocks. The final section sums up the preceding film, restating the problems and also setting out more general criticisms of the state in Britain of social housing.
This is clearly a strongly felt representation of the issue and the people interviewed not only describe, but criticise, complain and damn the state of the nation’s housing. However, I felt that it did not serve the issue as well as it might have done. This is partly because of the conventional form and style of the film. Mainly we have sequences of ‘talking heads’. Introducing a subject or case study, these tend to be professionals, even ‘experts’. This is standard television fare. Apart from it feeling repetitious, I do not think this actually gets a topic across with that much clarity. We have a series of sound bites or in another context, tweets. I find that a longer comment from one voice is easier to follow and comprehend. I do wonder if part of the antagonism to ‘experts’ on the small screen tends from the fallacy that this is more effective communication.
I found the ordinary people interviewed for the case studies more informative. And there are some powerful statements by residents, both explaining the problems in their experience, but also recording the unresponsive and even straightforward manipulation they receive from authorities. But similar problems recur across case studies and this feeds into the sense of repetition that I found in the film. The graphs are effective, they generally transmit information effectively in an area where there are numerous numbers and statistics.
The final section draws general conclusions. I think one’s response depends on one’s political stance. I was pleased to see Marx’s famous quotation;
“All that is solid melts into air.”
But it could have done with more of Marx’s analysis. One general and repeated point is that housing should be a right not a commodity. This is fine. But it needed to be seen in the context of capitalism where everything becomes a commodity: e.g. health care. I was not sure, apart from the campaign groups that featured, what the pathway to quality social housing should be. There was, as might be expected, more hope placed in the Labour Party than in the Conservative Party, whilst also criticising councils both Labour and Tory. But the most frequent type of housing seen in the case studies was high-rise Tower Blocks; including the ‘famous’ / ‘infamous’ ‘Red Road flats’ seen in Andrea Arnold’s film of the same name. But the film failed to address the history of these: those built in the rush of the 1960s frequently involved corruption, poor design and poor construction. This is a central theme in the excellent Our Friends in the North.
The audience responded warmly to the film with a round of applause. I did wonder how much this reflected the film itself and how much the issues. The latter was the focus of discussion and Q&A that followed the film. The director, Paul Sng was there with several campaigners involved in issues of social housing. The comments from the panellist were mainly about the issue rather than the film. And this also applied to questions and comments from members of the audience. As well as reinforcing the points made in the film there were also comments about methods of resistance or for change. One person bought up squatting and another penalties for ‘investment owners’ through rates of stamp duty.
The events that overshadowed this screening were the fire and fatalities at the Grenfell Tower Block in London. This, of course, occurred after the producers had finished their film and, as for many of us, the tragedy whilst predicted was an unexpected shock for them. There seems to be a much wider and more intense debate following this. This film even with its limitations, is likely to be an important part of the debate. It is screening again this coming Saturday, June 24th, at the Hyde Park Picture House.
Note, the screening I saw had problems with the soundtrack. The source was a DCP but the tone and timbre were problematic, making some of the dialogue difficult to follow. I gather the projectionist was working with the sound mixer to try and overcome this. No one after the feature explained what the problem was.
I also had a ‘mobile phone’ problem in the back row. The HPPH has a onscreen notice regarding e-cigarettes ‘not allowed’. However, for mobile phones it merely asks, ‘please avoid . . .’. I think Picturehouses’ ‘switch it off’ is more to the point.
Letters from Baghdad is a remarkable ‘biodoc’ – enjoyable and informative to watch and important for three reasons. First, it presents the story of Gertrude Lowthian Bell, a British woman born in 1868 who would become a prominent figure in the history of British imperial policy in the Levant, Palestine and Mesopotamia during the final days of the Ottoman Empire and the British mandate in the 1920s. Second, that history reveals several issues that have recurred and remain relevant to the contemporary politics of the region. Third, the formal features of the film are distinctive and make imaginative use of photographs taken by Bell herself, her extensive writings, and hundreds of contemporary film clips sourced from a variety of archives. An extraordinary amount of detail is packed into 95 minutes.
Gertrude Bell was born into a wealthy family in the North East of England. Her grandfather was an ironmaster and Liberal MP and her family home eventually became the manor house of the model village he built in Rounton in the North Riding of Yorkshire. One of the few women studying at Oxford in the late 1880s, she gained a first in history and over the next few years she travelled widely making use of her family’s diplomatic contacts. Her first passion for ‘the Orient’ was kindled in Tehran and soon she could speak Persian as well as French and German. Later she would add Arabic and begin extensive journeys across the wilds of ‘Arabia’, most of which was still under the nominal control of the Ottoman Empire. Her travels were accompanied by archaeology and a serious interest in antiquities. She quickly became a confirmed ‘Arabist’ and an authority on the leading families in the Arab world. Her knowledge and understanding of the region equalled and arguably out distanced that of T.E. Lawrence. She was only marginally held back by her gender. Her eventual importance to the imperial ‘project’, however, did depend to a certain extent on which of men were selected for which posts. She got on very well with some but others detested her. Her major influence came in the second half of the Great War and during the aftermath when the British and French carved up the old Ottoman Empire. She had a role in the creation of Iraq as an identity carved out of the three Turkish provinces of Mesopotamia and also became the founder of the Museum of Iraq. Her most high-profile role was in helping to place the Hashemite King Faisal on the throne of Iraq. Her knowledge of the leading Arab families was crucial.
The complicated story of Gertrude Bell’s work, initially off her own bat and later as a British appointee is told in the film alongside the personal life of a woman who significant relationships with a select group of men, but who never married. The film’s creators led by the two producer-directors Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum developed an interesting strategy for a biodoc which certainly works in maintaining a narrative flow. They collected some 1,200 archive film clips and several thosand still photographs, many taken by Bell herself. Much of the material came from the Gertrude Bell archive at Newcastle University. They collected together Bell’s letters and diary entries and also the statements made by many of the distinguished figures who knew her. In an interview with Anne-Katrin Titze, Sabine Krayenbühl says that the aim was to imagine that these statements were made for a documentary just two or three years after Bell’s death in 1926. The ‘witnesses’ are played by actors in appropriate period costumes who read out the statements as if they were appearing in a modern-style documentary. This is a technique which is similar to that used by Peter Watkins in a film like Culloden (1964), although in this case the actors appear against a plain studio backdrop instead of on the battlefield. The film material is quite varied with some colour footage as well as what seems to be hand-tinted footage. They also seem to have added sound effects to the footage – and sometimes what seem to be lines of dialogue. The diaries and letters of the adult Gertrude are read (off screen) by Tilda Swinton, who is also an executive producer. The editing by Sabine Krayenbühl is very good and the production’s profile is boosted by an executive producer role for Thelma Schoonmaker. (The film also has a UK co-producer and associate producers in France.) All of this worked for me and they were fortunate that Gertrude Bell had access to good quality photographic equipment and was skilled in using it. It’s also worth pointing out that the nineteenth century had been an important period for both French and British ‘Orientalism’ and ‘Arabism’ and there was a wide interest in filming in Mesopotamia.
What emerges from the film is a woman with considerable achievements who certainly deserves to be more widely known by contemporary audiences. There has also recently been a feature film based on her exploits in Mesopotamia directed by Werner Herzog and starring Nicole Kidman as Gertrude. The Queen of the Desert was shown at the Berlin Film Festival in 2015 but as far as I can see never released in the UK. It opened online in the US in April but seems to have been received very poorly by critics. It’s troubling to think what a mainstream international film might have done with Gertrude Bell’s life. But focusing on her two affairs is understandable and some of the ‘user views’ on the Herzog film inadvertently comment on aspects of this biodoc. Gertrude Bell was not an easy person to get on with and Letters from Baghdad doesn’t avoid this issue. There are revealing comments by the wife of an American missionary(?) who notes that she found favour with Gertrude Bell because she was a middle-class woman with a degree. At other points we learn about Bell’s extravagance in buying the best clothes and shoes available. These aren’t major crimes but the film might have been a little bit more aware of the issues about social class and imperial privilege. Bell was undoubtedly a pioneer for women in terms of her academic success, her archaeology and travel writing and her intelligence reports in wartime. She was also a very privileged member of the British upper class with an imperial arrogance. Gertrude Bell probably thought she was doing the best she could for the people of Iraq but she did draw boundaries which made the artificial state of Iraq more difficult to govern and she did acquiesce in the imperial policies of the Mandate which laid the seeds for the problems of Iraq today.
One of the most surprising facts that comes out of the film is that Bell claimed that the Jewish population of Baghdad was as much as 80,000 in 1920 – a very large proportion of the city’s population. Certainly there were 150,000 in Iraq as a whole. These Arab Jews were not necessarily interested in the Zionism, then becoming active in Mandate Palestine, and Bell herself seems to have been anti-Zionist. I hope I’ve got this right – there were so many statements in the film. I hope I’ve demonstrated that there is much to learn from the film. There are many ironies. The British treated the Iraqis very badly in the 1920s (when the country became a de facto military state run by the RAF with its bombers). The British and the Americans fought over the oil rights which Britain managed to retain by maintaining rights over Mosul. Gertrude Bell fought to build up the collection of antiquities in the Museum of Iraq – some of these were lost when the American invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003 led to looting.
Letters from Baghdad is well worth seeing. I watched it in an almost full Cinema 3 at Edinburgh’s Filmhouse on a Friday afternoon. It has a limited release in a handful of US cinemas this week (see this website for listings) and is online in the UK with a DVD release soon. I’d happily watch the film again to check my understanding of this woman’s extraordinary adventures.