Category: Documentary

3 Cuban Documentary Shorts

Four crew members of the freight team in ‘The Load’

The International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam (IDFA) is offering the opportunity to watch films online with some free and others charging a fee. There are 450 free short documentaries and I chose three titles all produced by students at the International Film School in Cuba, an important institution founded by Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Cuban filmmakers Julio Garcia Espinosa and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and the Argentinian filmmaker Fernando Birri in December 1986. The school was set up to provide education and training for primarily Latin American filmmakers and it has received support from filmmakers around the world. It is best known as ‘Escuela Internacional de Cine y Television’ or EICTV.

The three films I chose were all submitted to IDFA’s student competition. I was first attracted to two films dealing with aspects of Cuban Railways. I hadn’t realised that Cuba saw some of the first steam railways in the world (before Spain) and that although the system has suffered because of the US blockade and the end of aid from the USSR, there has been a revival recently with new stock from China and Iran and older equipment from other countries maintaining diplomatic relations with Cuba.

The Load (La Carga, 2015, 25 mins), dir Victor Alexis Guerrero, is less about the railway itself and more about the men who work on it. We open somewhere on a single track railway through fields with grass that nearly grows over the tracks. It’s night and there appear to be several men in a freight car. At first I was confused by this. I knew there wouldn’t be illegal riders on the train, but I remembered that many Cubans have had to travel in communal trucks, either because they can’t afford long distance buses or services have not been available. One of the men in the freight car is trying to get a light to work with bare wires and a piece of card. Eventually he manages it and we can see that in total there are seven men on the train and they are all crew. They live in a wagon with bunks and a cooking range. One of them is the driver and the others are presumably there to help load and unload the train of wagons. They are based at a railhead in Matanzas, the port city some 55 miles east of Havana. Cuban Railways clearly has some problems and the men find themselves waiting around for a new load. We have already seen their difficulty in moving their open wagons. At one point with the train slipping on the rails, the men are out putting sand on the rails to try to achieve better adhesion.But mostly the men engage in familiar forms of banter including tales about women. Eventually a new load is found for the train and they trundle away with a load of aggregate for building work. It’s nice to just spend a few minutes with a group of working men, bitching about their jobs, just like workers anywhere.

Goats travel on the Hershey train as well

Inertia (All Pantographs Go to Heaven, 2008, 15 mins), dir Armando Capó Ramos, is also about railways but it is a very different kind of film. Its subject is the ‘Hershey Railway’. This railway between Havana and Matanzas is the only electric line surviving in Cuba, all the other motive power is diesel. It was built originally by the US chocolate giant Hershey in circa 1916 to transport sugar to Havana from its mill in the town of Hershey (now Camilo Cienfeugos). Several branch lines were also constructed to enable workers to get to the mill. Some of these are now closed, along with the mill, but tourist traffic keeps the system open. This short film reminds me of some of the Cuban revolutionary/avant garde shorts of the 1960s. There isn’t much in the way of political comment, except for a sequence in which I’m guessing that a group of local passengers look rather bored and disapproving when a musical group boards the train and performs a conga down the aisle, presumably with some tourists joining in. Earlier we have been offered a montage of close-ups of faces and objects and an aerial/overhead shot of the train shed (possibly the camera was running along a rail suspend from the ceiling?). As well as montage, the filmmaker also uses reverse projection, so the same car moves swiftly out of the shed and then back. In the final third of the film, the camera remains static as the train stops and we watch the passengers walking away down the track and gradually out of focus. This last shot lasts 5 minutes and does prove oddly fascinating.

The ideas explored here about how to represent the railway and its passengers are interesting but I’m not sure that they are fully integrated. I would guess that the filmmaker hasn’t got the experience needed to assess the completed film and then go back and re-edit. On the other hand, why should the documentary prioritise ‘coherence’? I was intrigued by the film and I did get a sense of what the railway was like. Perhaps that’s enough?

Teresa and Diana on their raft

Iceberg (2015, 26 mins), dir Juliana Gabriela Gomez Castañeda, seemed to me the most successful of the three films. It is a film about loneliness which manages to compress a maternal family melodrama into its 26 minutes. Although the central character reveals her pain in two short sequences, we also see that she lives in a small community that appears to be supportive. I’m guessing that this is the meaning of the title. Like an iceberg, Teresa appears on the surface to be happy in her community, but underneath she is pining for contact with her daughter and with her mother in the cemetery.

Teresa excited and waiting for the ferry to bring María to her

Teresa lives in a small community on the coast close to Puerto Santiago de Cuba. She is not completely alone because her dog Diana seems to accompany her everywhere. Most days Teresa, who is in her 60s, goes fishing. She has two floats linked together by chains which she places in the water, and then sits back in the water with one float under legs and the other beneath her upper torso creating a star shape. Diana jumps up between her legs and stands on the float and Teresa uses her arms to gently paddle out into the bay. Occasionally she catches a small fish. It’s not an efficient way to fish but it doesn’t cost anything and it’s a nice way to spend the day. In the first part of the film, María, her granddaughter is staying with her, but soon she has to go back to boarding school by ferry. Teresa’s social life revolves around the church and a drink with friends in the evening when she sings. But she is most expressive in her phone call to her daughter in another city who hasn’t seen María for some time. The film is beautifully shot in a ‘Scope ratio and like the first film, shows the ordinary lives of Cubans.

Cuban cinema was the leader of Latin American cinema in the 1960s and it is good to see that the International Film School is still training new talents, especially in documentary. Perhaps if Trump loses in November, the Cuban industry might benefit from any lifting of the US blockade? I certainly hope so.

Monsoon (Canada-France-India 2014)

Monsoon rains can be very dangerous but this street kid in Mumbai is having fun

When the opening credits of this wonderful documentary rolled and I realised that this was going to be an outside observer’s take on the phenomenon that is India’s annual monsoon, I did experience a moment of concern about yet another westerner’s perspective on the sub-continent. Why was this appearing in an online version of the London Indian Film Festival? In the UK especially, we get a wide range of Indian-set documentary material on TV of varying quality, some excellent but some much less so and the lingering sense of Raj nostalgia and an orientalist eye is often evident. However, in this case I think the film escapes this kind of possible censure.

Sturla Gunnarsson is a distinguished filmmaker, born in Iceland but raised and educated in Canada where he began work with the National Film Board and developed a stellar career in documentary and fiction for cinema and TV. I feel ashamed not to know about his long and successful career – my only defence being the usual one that Canadian filmmaking still struggles to get distribution in the UK. Monsoon is not his first film set in India and this becomes evident very quickly.

Akhila Prasad, the articulate 12 year-old whose family in Kerala is a central focus in the film

Gunnarsson offers us several different ways of thinking about the annual monsoon. One is through the stories of individual characters – a family in a village on the backwaters in Kerala, a bookie in Kolkata, a retired meteorologist in Pune etc. Another is about the sheer physical presence of the monsoon and the spiritual questions it raises about how the need to cope with such powerful natural forces has an impact on a large and diverse country like India. In subtle ways the film also makes comments on social, economic and political questions about India. The film was shot on 4K digital and must be very impressive on cinema screens. The stunning imagery is accompanied by an excellent music score by Andrew T. Mackay and the Bombay Dub Orchestra.

The structure of the film follows roughly the course of the monsoon which hits Southern Kerala in the first few days of June and moves North and East over the next few weeks.One of the narrative drivers of the film is the attempt by government meteorologists and climate scientists to predict accurately when and how the monsoon will move across the country. In 2013 the rains are unusually heavy in Kerala and flooding hits the Prasad family who Gunnarsson has chosen to follow. But further north in the lee of the Western Ghats in Maharashtra no rain falls for the fourth year in a row. Government announcements have to be carefully timed to avoid too much stock market speculation – but the bookie in Kolkata seems able to maintain his business, betting on the rain simply on the basis of studying the clouds. Gunnarson himself provides narration. He is calm, speaking softly and asking questions but generally unobtrusive. He does, however, also hint at more probing questions.

The sequences in Mumbai inevitably mention Bollywood, with a chance for Moushumi Chatterjee to reminisce about shooting Manzil (1979) with a young Amitabh Bachchan. Also inevitable perhaps, Gunnarsson’s camera wanders through Dharavi but presents us with two very different stories in the densely-crowded slum now deluged by the monsoon. One features a man from the least advantaged of all social groups in India who has become a barrister and is making a plea in the High Court and another features people making animal sacrifices in the rain. Gunnarsson admits that he doesn’t really understand these rituals and his cinematographer Van Royko records these scenes as part of the general coverage of Mumbai during the monsoon. The final locations for the film’s narrative are the states of Assam and Meghalaya in the far North East of India. The National Park in Assam needs the monsoon rains to replenish the natural environment for its endangered species like the Indian rhino which becomes vulnerable at this time of year to poachers. Meghalaya has the great waterfalls that see the rains eventually rushing to replenish the Brahmaputra river system. At this point Gunnarsson himself is overtaken by the emotional and spiritual impact of the rains.

The retired meteorologist comes to Meghalaya to see what the rains mean for himself

If I have one slight criticism, it is that the film doesn’t clarify aspects of the movement of the monsoon winds. At one point we see meteorologists recording a front moving north-westwards across the Bay of Bengal, but the impact finally comes from the South West which is why Southern Kerala is hit first. This is part of the complexity of the monsoon weather systems, with the Arabian Sea branch of the monsoon hitting first. Equally, the narrative structure of the film suggests that Meghalaya receives the rain last, but actually the town of Cherrapunji (‘the wettest place on Earth’) which appears in the film, begins to receive heavy rain in June which then peaks in July. This the ‘Bay of Bengal’ branch which picks up more moisture as it heads north-eastwards and then when it meets the Eastern Himalyas, turns back towards the rest, after unloading much of its water over Assam and Meghalaya. But it’s too much to ask the film to explain all this in detail, I think. What the film does do, quite neatly is to use small symbols to mark where each sequence is filmed.

This is certainly a documentary I would recommend. It offers visual storytelling about the impact of weather systems with a focus on personal stories. In the wider context, the monsoon can cause great damage through both flooding and drought, starvation and landslip and so on. People die from the impact and 70% of India’s rainfall occurs in the period from June to September. This film will give you a good idea why it is so important to the Indian economy and to Indian culture. The voiceover is in English with some subtitles for statements by people speaking local languages.

CIFF20 #1: Walking on Water (Italy-Germany-UAE-US 2018)

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Visionary

CIFFlogo Observational documentaries, where the the camera appears to observe what’s going on without intervention, can tell us much about the events recorded. However, they need to overcome the disadvantage of not being able to ‘tell’ us information; there’s no voiceover, for instance, to anchor the images. Andrey Paounov’s documentary starts and ends with intertitles, there’s also one use in the body of the text, otherwise the film just shows Cristo’s installation at Lake Iseo, Italy, being planned, constructed and displayed.

Cristo’s installations are relatively well-known; for example he and his then collaborator Jeanne-Claude (his late wife) wrapped the Reichstag in 1995. It wasn’t so long ago that contemporary art was ridiculed (at least in the UK) by mainstream media; now it is often a tourist attraction (such as London’s Tate Modern). Cristo’s floating pier was certainly popular and it would have been very interesting to learn of its genesis and production however all we get of this are scraps of uncontextualised conversation. I can’t summarise it better than Glenn Kenny:

‘Unfortunately, [Paounov] does not seem to aspire to the Maysles’ level of engagement. In 2006’s “The Gates,” [also by Cristo] for instance… the filmmakers found enormous drama in the negotiations/battles between artists and New York City’s bureaucrats, concerning miles of fabric gates snaked through Central Park…’

Maysles was an observational documentarist too so formal constraints don’t explain the limitations of Walking On Water. Occasionally it’s clear Paounov is making a point: in one scene Cristo is shaking hands at a garden party with (presumably) the ‘great and good’ which is suffixed with a large joint of meat on display. Such satire is welcome but questions about why the Italian administrators allowed too many tourists into the town (it’s suggested the major gets his money from the bus company) are not elaborated upon. I’d like to know why virtually no women are involved and what happened to the material used afterwards (Wikipedia tells me it was recycled). Cristo tells an audience that he paid for the anchors (at $5000 a pop) himself but was that true of the whole construct? A scene were we learn his artwork based on the project are selling for millions shows his business acumen: the installation as a ‘loss leader’?

On the plus side some of the cinematography is startlingly beautiful; 10 camera operators are credited. The pier itself is fabulous and, if it hadn’t been so crowded, would have been great to walk along. This yellow ‘brick’ road is ripe for a semiotic analysis but unfortunately this is not that sort of film though I do think it is worth seeing.

The festival’s available here.

Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records (UK 2018)

Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records is a conventional but very enjoyable music documentary about the brief period of independent success by the record label that introduced Jamaican popular music to the wider British public in the late 1960s/early 1970s and in doing so fostered the development of Black British music. In an interview, the director Nicolas Jack Davies says that he hoped that his documentary would record the history of black and white fans coming together in their love of Jamaican music in the 60s and early 70s and also present the context of an inhospitable and racist culture that young Jamaican migrants were forced to confront. I think the film does achieve this through its interview format and specifically its choice of ‘witnesses’. It’s a useful marker of the 50th anniversary of the emergence of an important record label and a distinctive music culture.

Kyle Reece Bell as the young Dandy Livingstone

Dandy Livingstone himself – with a ‘witness’ statement about the history of Trojan

The film is a fairly straightforward chronology of the development of Jamaican popular music from the early 1960s Jamaican interest in American rhythm and blues and soul through to the development of ska and rocksteady and then the emergence of heavier ‘roots’ reggae and lighter ‘lovers rock’ in the UK in the mid-1970s. Much of this history can be found in a range of written music histories, including the detailed study, Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King by Lloyd Bradley (2000). The history might have been familiar to me but it was good to see it brought to life in this film and there were certainly things I learned. Many of the original record producers from the 1960s are sadly no longer with us and others were perhaps not available. Davies decided on a three-pronged strategy. His principal ‘witnesses’ tell us their own personal stories which together provide the historical record. Brief filmed re-enactments alongside archive footage provide the context and illustrate some of the stories. The innovation here is that young actors play some of the older witnesses. This seemed to me to work well. We see a young Dandy Livingstone (played by Kyle Reece Bell) arriving in the UK and his initial reactions alongside the real singer and his memories. Similarly we get witness statements by producer Bunny Lee, performers Derrick Morgan, Pauline Black and Neville Staple, each I think with a younger actor playing their younger selves. Black and Staple were part of the later ‘Two-Tone’ movement, one of the important developments that followed Trojan’s success. Don Letts, Lee Scratch Perry and Marcia Griffith also contribute. The specifically Trojan story is presented in archive footage of founder Lee Gopthal who set up the Trojan label in 1968 in a deal with Island’s Chris Blackwell. Gopthal already had music shops and Jamaican music interests. The story is mainly told through statements by Trojan’s employees at the time plus fans and other commentators.

Sally Horwill as the young Pauline Black

Pauline Black – a fan in the 1960s and a star of 2 Tone in the 1980s

One of the pleasing aspects of the film is its careful preservation of aspect ratios for the archive material (much of it shot for TV) presented inside the 2.35:1 frame used for the witness statements and dramatic reconstructions. The careful presentation of archive footage helps in one of the film’s major aims – to provide younger audiences with a visual representation of how white working-class audiences became early supporters of Jamaican popular music. This is the history which informs Shane Meadows’ ‘personal’ story, This Is England (UK 2006). The two films together would make an interesting double bill. It was later in the 1970s that white skinheads would be targeted by the racist National Front. This in turn was resisted in the emergence of 2 Tone from 1979.

The actual story of the rise and fall of Trojan as a record label is perhaps the least successful part of the film for me. The label grew very quickly between 1969 and the early 1970s and at one point Trojan had five Top 40 records in the UK with most of the stars of Jamaican music making an appearance on the label at some point. The decline appears to have been a combination of a lack of resources and infrastructure necessary to fully exploit the popularity of the music and a classic ‘over expansion’ which raised costs when the business didn’t have enough capital to sustain its operations. The result was that the label had to be sold and, although it still exists today, most contemporary music fans will have come across Trojan (a name inspired by the type of truck which carried Duke Reid’s sound system around Jamaica in the early 1960s) as a re-issue label. It’s difficult to convey the economics of the music business in a film like this when the natural urge is to hear another interesting anecdote or simply to play another classic song. Music fans will be pleased perhaps to learn that one of the ‘wrong decisions’ was to attempt to ‘sweeten’ the sound of the early 1970s reggae records by adding string arrangements in order to attract more mainstream record buyers. This raised the production costs and alienated the ‘roots’ fans – a familiar story from several periods of music history. The result of the collapse of Trojan became part of the story of the divergence in the 1970s between the heavier ‘roots reggae’ with its deeper Rastafarian political and spiritual tones and the emergence of the lighter ‘lovers’ rock’ in London. But that’s another, and just as complex, story.

Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records has had successful festival screenings and is now lined up for VOD and physical media, initially in the US. I saw it as part of the ‘We Are One Festival’ online and it fitted in very well. I’d love to see it on a big screen and hear the music from a quality sound system. The official website has some info on releases.

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (Sweden-US 2011)

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Stokely Carmichael: Black Power hero

It was timely of MUBI to post this film of Swedish National Broadcast Company news footage on American Civil Rights protests. Director Göran Olsson discovered the footage whilst researching and realised it needed to be presented to a contemporary audience. He starts with an interview with a white, small businessman who reiterates the myth of the American Dream and this frames the impossibility at the time of even believing in the Dream if you were a ‘person of colour’. The Swedish journalists went to where it was at and interviewed, or filmed speaking, key campaigners for Black Power: Elaine Brown, Stokley Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. Although, as Olsson says in a Film Comment interview, his film is about the Swedish point of view of the time, in order to not overly privilege this viewpoint he included a contemporary African-American view on the footage with comments from musicians Erykah Badu, John Forté (of The Fugees) and Talib Kweli and professors Angela Davis, Robin Kelley and Sonia Sanchez. As he says, these voices have a feel of a DVD commentary and it’s especially good to hear Angela Davis; the footage includes her trial for abetting murder which was such a farcical charge that (you’d hope) it had no chance of sticking.

Unfortunately what’s most striking about the documentary is how little things have changed for African Americans. The same police brutality and government connivance in repression: all in the ‘land of the free’. One difference is, of course, social media were we can readily see police violence though it is unnerving how this does not curb their brutality. The news media, in the 1960s, were probably more likely to ‘call out’ government malfeasance as the increasing corporatisation of news since the 1980s has mitigated risk taking and investigative reporting. The Swedish reporters’ ‘neutral and friendly’ demeanour comes through strongly as they were seeking the ‘truth’; though Angela Davis’ brilliant putdown, whilst being interviewed in prison on the trumped-up charges (was that phrase named after him?!), showed the inevitable limitations of their perspective. Olsson also includes footage of a tourist bus tour of Swedes in Harlem in which the racist assumptions aired are shocking today.

The ending, rightly, is bleak as heroin flooded into Harlem and so, successfully, dispersed Black radicalism; a similar policy was used in LA in the 1980s. This uses footage from Lars Ulvestam’s documentary Harlem: Voices, Faces (Sweden, 1973).

The story hasn’t ended; currently there have been more than two weeks of protest in America after George Floyd’s murder on camera by police. It would be nice to think that this will be a turning point, particularly with the Hater in Chief currently occupying the White House and the fact that the protests have extended worldwide. It was good to see slave trader Colston’s statue being plonked into the harbour in Bristol, UK, last weekend though it is likely the forces of reaction will be not far behind. That such mass protests are happening during a pandemic (though police are more likely to kill African American males than Covid19) is worrying.

Searching for Ingmar Bergman (Germany-France 2018)

All three of us currently contributing to this blog have written about Ingmar Bergman’s films. I think Keith would be happy to accept the position of fan. But I and possibly Nick are more wary. I admire the skills of his filmmaking and I like some of the early films, but I struggle to enjoy the later films I’ve seen. Margarethe von Trotta, however, is a filmmaker I certainly admire and I’ve found all her films interesting. This is her documentary and therefore I approached it with some trepidation, knowing that she was a Bergman fan too.

Liv Ullman responds to Margarethe von Trotta’s questions

The film opens with von Trotta on the beach where Bergman shot The Seventh Seal (1957) as she takes us through her first experience of watching his films and then moves to Paris as she tells us how in 1960 she intended to study at the Sorbonne. She then admits that, after meeting some young French cinéphiles, she spent much of her time in cinemas catching up on la nouvelle vague and, through the young directors like Truffaut, discovering Bergman. We realise that this will be a ‘personal journey’ type of documentary and what follows sees the German director discussing Bergman with other directors, several of his female actors and then several members of his family as she visits Bergman’s home on Fårö, the small island in the Baltic where he spent most of his later life. As several reviewers have pointed out, this is a performative documentary – Margarethe von Trotta appears in the film herself and we see her interacting with her interviewees. What could have been a dull series of talking heads interspersed with clips from the films becomes something more personal and engaging. It’s good to see von Trotta talking with, for instance, Liv Ullman. Here are two successful female filmmakers, both of whom have been actors as well as directors, talking about a man who seemed to have the ability to find strong, beautiful and intelligent women (and skilled actors) to be the leads in his films – something eloquently confirmed by the Spanish director Carlos Saura. Bergman was also a man who married five times and seemingly left his wives after they gave birth, unable to engage in any way with his young children.

Margarethe von Trotta with two of Bergman’s sons, Daniel (right) and Ingmar (left)

We do meet Daniel Bergman, one of Bergman’s sons who had a difficult time in later life working with his father on Sunday’s Children (1992), a film written by Ingmar and directed by Daniel and drawing on memories of Ingmar’s father, the cleric Erik Bergman. Von Trotta also shows us a photograph of the whole Bergman clan, over three generations, taken when they travelled to Fårö. On this occasion several of the eight Bergman children met each other for the first time. The documentary does also begin to explore Ingmar’s deep psychological problems with his father and his own need to endlessly explore his childhood rather than engage with his children. This is just one example of how the documentary doesn’t ignore Bergman’s darker side but this isn’t enough to appease some of the film’s reviewers and several see von Trotta as creating a hagiography. She is a fan and she shows us Bergman’s list of films he selected for a publication related to the 1994 Göteborg Film Festival. It reveals that von Trotta’s own film The German Sisters (1981) is the only film in the list directed by a woman and the only one by a filmmaker who is still alive.

I’m not sure that it is fair to describe the film as a ‘hagiography’. Von Trotta does interview two of Bergman’s prominent contemporary disciples in the shape of the French directors Olivier Assayas and Mia Hansen-Løve. The latter made a visit to Fårö to make a (fiction) film which appears to be still to be released. However, another director of a ‘post-Bergman generation’, Ruben Östlund, points to the split in Swedish film culture that came about in the 1960s. Östlund explains that he was trained at the Göteborg film school where there has been more of an influence of the younger directors from the 1960s, led by Bo Widerberg, whereas in Stockholm there is still the sense that Bergman is the important figure. This view, which I confess I have long held, preferring Widerberg to Bergman, is confirmed by the writer, director and critic Stig Björkman who explains that in the 1960s Bergman began to feel threatened by the rise of a new generation. To be fair to Bergman though, he did include one of Widerberg’s films in that 1994 list.

A production still of Ruben Östlund being interviewed by Margarethe von Trotta

I think Margarethe von Trotta could have delved a little deeper into some of Bergman’s darker places and it’s unfortunate that she doesn’t/couldn’t interview some of Bergman’s male actors. Many of them are no longer with us. Perhaps my major disappointment with the film is that it fails to fulfil the blurb in the sense that although Margarethe von Trotta does probe a little about Bergman’s childhood, she doesn’t attempt to say anything about Bergman’s early work. He had made 16 feature films between 1946 and 1956 when he started on The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries. Apart from Summer with Monika (1953), which was a big influence on Truffaut and Godard, there is no mention of the early career in film – or theatre. It is the early films that I have enjoyed most. There is a clue as to why the early films are excluded. What does emerge from the documentary is that above all, Bergman saw himself as a writer. In those early films he was often constrained by working on somebody else’s original material. Von Trotta’s film does feel like a gathering of auteurs. It is an entertaining gathering and I was most impressed by the directors fluency in discussing the life and work of Bergman in French, German and English and at least I now know how to pronounce properly a range of names and titles in German and Swedish. In summary, this is a film that will interest Bergman’s fans and anyone interested in the history of European cinephilia. But if you don’t know Bergman that well it might not be the best place to start? On the other hand, it is a well-made documentary and Margarethe von Trotta is an engaging guide.