Category: Documentary

Looking for Love (UK 2015)

Looking for Love

This is the new film by Menelik Shabazz [BBFC certificate 15]. Rather like his last feature, The Story of Lovers’ Rock (2011) this is a documentary study. On this occasion instead of revisiting Afro-Caribbean and music history this film has a contemporary focus:

‘It is a film about love and relationships between man and woman in the 21st century. Why are there so many single people of all ages out there? What is love? How do we keep a good relationship going? We all need love but why do we sabotage the very thing we need? What is the backdrop to our often dysfunctional behaviour and what does mum and dad have to do with it? I am going in real deep on this one, taking people to places many have never been before or rarely visit- in mind, body and soul. I have got interviews with people who are single, in relationships, psychologists, relationships coaches, spoken word artists all giving real talk about the thing that really matters in our life. It’s not all serious we got a number of interviews with comedians (Kojo, Eddie Kadi, Slim, Andi Osho, Mr Cee, and Donna Spence) which I guarantee you will have you in stitches.’

{Menelik Shabazz)

Like the earlier film this promises to be a fascinating but also entertaining film discussion. There is a screening tonight [January 15th at 7.45 p.m. at the Seven Arts Centre in Chapel Allerton. And Menelik will be there for a Q&A following the film. Definitely worth a trek up to North Leeds.

A German Youth (Une jeunesse allemande, France-Switzerland-Germany 2015)

GermanYouth3web

This is a fascinating documentary in the Cinema Versa section [Underground Voices] at the Leeds International Film Festival. Essentially the film follows the rise and fall of the Red Army Faction or Baader Meinhof Group in Germany through the 1960s and 1970s. However, it is not a narrative in the sense of the earlier fictional treatment The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008). This is an exploration of a time, a place and a movement – providing an assemblage of film extracts, some records of the time, some by the members of the movement and some by their opponents, the West German State and media.

There are films by Ulricke Meinhof made for German television, there are the films of Holger Meins and young filmmakers at the Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin: we see at one point Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Germany in Autumn / Deutschland im Herbst (1978, a very fine treatment). We also see media coverage from German television and material from the Springer publication empire.

Jean-Gabriel Périot, the writer and director, explained his approach in the Festival catalogue.

“To be truly objective, one must truly examine and question the motivations and thought processes of the so-called wrongdoers as well. This raises unresovable and even unbearable questions. While considering these ideas as human beings neither rewrites history, nor excuses the crimes committed, it does open a door to a more complete discussion about the nature of the acts and our own humanity, albeit the gloomiest part.”

I would question the ‘truly objective’, and I do not think that the film achieves all of Periot’s aims. However, it does revisit the now notorious movement and period with an interesting eye. There is familiar material but also film extracts I have not seen in the UK before. The heady days when the group developed is well captured. At one point some official comments that the Film School aimed to bring technically skilled entrants to the industry and they actually got ‘revolutionary wrongdoers’.

The film is less successful with the stance of state and media: these are all official or public presentations. So the sense of the interests that drove these responses is not clear.

But the film holds ones interest and offers a compelling portrait of the characters and events. It is also a pleasure to see a film that treats archive footage with respect, much of the film is in plain black and white and academy ratio. It eschews a commentary letting the protagonists speak for themselves. There are several powerful sequences with a blank screen as we hear the recorded voices of group members: though in the UK we do have the English subtitles.

The film is re-screening on Tuesday November 17th at 2 p.m. You can check out more background in the Hollywood Reporter; and you can get a taste of the content with the IMDB censor’s comments: this includes the following not objective appraisal:

 “In view of the documentary’s depictions and exploration of the leftist movements’ hostile actions to undermine the authority of Germany’s democratically elected government, this film would be recommended to persons aged 21 and above (in Germany and in other countries, with a warning), as a matured audience would be better able to understand the historical context and portrayal of the radicals in this situation.”

LFF 2015 #3: Something Better to Come (Denmark-Poland 2015)

Cooking on the dump . . .

Cooking on the dump . . .

I approached this screening with some trepidation. I’d chosen it because it fitted my schedule. I’m always slightly wary of documentaries and I’m not sure why. I rarely choose to see documentaries at my local cinemas but when I do get to see them I nearly always find them rewarding. This one certainly sounded grim and when I arrived at the ICA (which didn’t have seat reservations for this screening) I found myself sitting behind the tallest person in the cinema. With poor raking in the cinema this meant I had to lean sideways to read the subtitles. It wasn’t a good start but I needn’t have worried.

People live and work on or near to rubbish tips all over the world and I can think of both cinema documentaries and fiction films set in Brazil, Egypt and India in which potentially positive stories can be found about their lives. I wasn’t aware of the same scale of living with rubbish in Moscow. Rummaging about in Cairo or Mumbai sounds relatively attractive in comparison to surviving a Russian winter in a makeshift hut on a waste tip in the snow and slush. But apparently this is what hundreds, if not thousands, of people do every year. The film’s title comes from a quote from Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths (1902), a play depicting ‘Scenes From Russian Life’ amongst the poorest classes. Hanna Polak’s film focuses on one young woman and offers us glimpses of her life over a 14 year period, starting when she was 10.

Hanna Polak is a celebrated Polish documentarist and a humanitarian campaigner. Reading her biographical details, her list of films and awards over the last fifteen years and the range of her work with charitable organisations, I’m surprised (and perhaps shamed) that I haven’t come across her before. After the screening she gave a spirited account of how she made her latest film and used the opportunity to encourage us all to promote the film and the various campaigns around it. In short, Hanna Polak embodies what was once called ‘social documentary’. Her films are meant to not only show the world but definitely to change it. In Putin’s Russia that’s a tough call.

The genesis of the film was a project that Polak began in order to try to help street children in Moscow. It was they who introduced her to the communities on the dumps. For a long period she worked to help children with medical problems, getting them access to treatment. She always carried a camera and took both still photographs and film footage but most of the time she was too busy to do this systematically. It was only later that somebody suggested that she make a film and that she realised that she might be able to do more for the people on the dumps if a film showed what was happening to a much wider audience. The decision to make the young woman Yula, the central character in the story was in effect retrospective and we see glimpses of her as a child before we get more sustained coverage of incidents from her later teenage years onwards. Across the 14 years, Hanna Polak had other films to make as director, producer and cinematographer including Children of the Leningradsky (2004) about street children living around a Moscow railway station. She made other social documentaries as well as, presumably, jobs to simply pay the bills. She graduated from a cinematography school in Moscow so she had contacts in the city but she had to look elsewhere for funding. Something Better to Come is co-produced by Polish and Danish/Nordic public funding (an example of Scandinavian support for charitable/aid-related work?).

The difficulties of making this film – physical, organisational, personal etc. – mean that it doesn’t offer many ‘aesthetic pleasures’ but it packs a powerful punch as a social statement. Yula herself is a remarkable young woman and Hanna Polak amused us by revealing that the 23 year-old Yula is now living a carefully organised life in Moscow which allows the filmmaker limited interview time. “You get one hour, then I must do something else.” Yula’s family lost their original apartment in Moscow and ended up homeless and eventually on the dump. Years later, almost like a miracle in a fairy tale, the Moscow authorities discovered that the family had property rights that were still valid and Yula got an apartment. In the meantime her father, like many others, had died. Life on the dump is hard. A temporary shelter may need to be moved every few days as the only work available is searching through the new rubbish for recycleable material and it’s important to be close by. The trucks and bulldozers move the mountains of rubbish and the ‘recyclers’ are paid in vodka for what they find. Alcoholism sits along hyperthermia in winter and various diseases associated with dirty water and contaminated food as major killers. The recycling is an illegal operation controlled by gangsters. Hanna Polak faced dangers working with the people of the dump and finding money to complete her film was a problem. Now she spends her time trying to find ways to promote her film. If a screening happens near you, please go to see it and support her cause.

Hanna Polak’s website

Trailer for Something Better to Come:

Death of a Gentleman (UK 2015)

A scene from a 'proper' game of cricket – an image from the film's website: http://deathofagentlemanfilm.com

A scene from a ‘proper’ game of cricket – an image from the film’s website: http://deathofagentlemanfilm.com

This documentary is about corruption in the governing bodies that control international cricket. It was released in July – ironically in the middle of one of the most exciting of recent test series between England and Australia. Ostensibly setting out to discover if test cricket was dying in the face of commercial exploitation of shorter forms of the game, the filmmakers discovered a bigger story about corruption along the way.

The film’s release prompted several newspaper articles that explored the content of the film’s argument, three on the Guardian‘s website alone. Rather than repeat these, I intend to focus more on the film as an example of documentary. I should say first that I found the film fascinating and I learned a great deal. Having said that, I have some doubts about its status as a cinema documentary.

My first quibble is with the title. The suggestion is clear – cricket is a game meant to be played in a ‘gentlemanly’ manner. The implication is that this means that test cricket played in the correct manner is what cricket is all about. To emphasise this the film begins with a long shot of a rural cricket ground with a team in whites slowly taking to the field. BBC Test Match Special commentator Jonathan Agnew and West Indian legend Michael Holding (aka ‘Whispering Death’ and my hero) are wheeled out to explain this to camera. The film’s website even tells us that: “Death of a Gentleman is not a nostalgic look back at a sport that professionals played against amateurs while stopping for tea”. Fair enough, but the two main filmmakers don’t really see cricket in the way that I and many others do. Sam Collins is an Old Etonian and Jarrod Kimber describes himself as a “larrikin Aussie”. I’ve been watching/listening to cricket commentaries for a very long time and I know cricket is a game riven by conflicts between patrician public school boys (aka ‘gentlemen’), wealthy entrepreneurs and professional players and that for much of its history it has been cursed with colonial mentalities and the whiff of racist assumptions. The film rather glides over this and focuses on the dispute between the first two – between the public school ethos and the power of money. To be fair, however, the journalist Gideon Haigh’s contributions do slightly shift the argument.

As a film, I guess this is an ‘authored’ and therefore ‘performative’ documentary in the guise of investigative reporting. The two filmmakers are the central characters who travel between Australia, the UK, India, Sri Lanka and the UAE first looking for an answer to their question about test cricket and then investigating the murky goings-on of the International Cricket Council. As a ‘cinematic’ documentary there is not much to commend. The travels of our reporters are presented conventionally, intercut with talking heads of famous cricketers and administrators and archive footage of news reports and cricket coverage. Visually the film comes alive only when we get to India and the pair are suitably overawed by their experience of an IPL (Indian Premier League – 20:20) game. There wasn’t enough of this but I’m probably arguing for a different film that tries to understand cricket and its social history.

For film and media theorists/analysts what is most interesting about this film is that the filmmakers, perhaps accidentally, present us with a kind of perfect hero and two ‘over the top’ villains. I suspect a Hollywood scriptwriter might have struggled to invent these three. The ‘hero’ is Ed Cowan, a very personable young Australian who plays cricket in the ‘proper’ way and is consequently dropped by the Australian Cricket Authority because he doesn’t score fast enough for the one-day game. He is there at the beginning of the film to provide the story that illustrates why ‘faster’ versions of the game (20:20 and ODI) are damaging test cricket. He is soon overshadowed by the two super-villains – Giles Clarke, Chair of the (ECB) English Cricket Board and N Srinivasan President of the BCCI (Board of the Cricket Council of India) and later Chair of the ICC (International Cricket Council). I’m not going to go into the arguments presented in the film about how these two led international cricket down the ‘wrong road’ and in N. Srinivasan’s case became mired in corruption scandals. I’m more interested in how the institutional conventions of journalism and documentary practice ‘overdetermine’ the way in which the heroes and villains are represented, almost unconsciously. Collins and Kimber are shown arranging interviews with Clarke and Srinivasan. The two administrators, perhaps surprisingly, give interviews on camera and then act like politicians – spinning responses, refusing to answer certain questions etc. In the case of Srinivasan I’m not sure about how this has been edited but it gives the impression that Srinivasan is being deliberately evasive. He comes across, as the journalists say, as ‘inscrutable’. Clarke on the other hand doesn’t seem to care about being the bad guy. Some of the things he says are in themselves defensible – even if many would disagree with him – but he says them with such little grace and barely concealed contempt that some of the overall argument is lost. When a villain is so villainous in a documentary it does make you wonder if the whole thing is a set-up. Later Clarke will avoid the young men, calling them ‘idiots’.

The final confrontation – when Collins and Kimber travel to Dubai to try to discover what the International Cricket Council have got up to – is firmly within the ‘performative mode’. They themselves comment on this by introducing their ‘fake sheikh’ (a ruse often used to expose sporting scandals in the UK, where a reporter disguised as an Arab sheikh wears a microphone and camera beneath his robes to trap the bad guys. What is shocking is that despite the exposure of these senior administrators, nothing has really changed in world cricket, except that these two have kept their powerful roles with slightly different titles. Collins and Kimber have started a Campaign to Change Cricket with a public demonstration at the Oval Test on August 20th, a petition and more with details available on the website. The change is needed to stop the domination of world cricket by the representatives of India, England and Australia who have effectively marginalised the other seven Test Match countries and the larger group of associate members who need support to develop cricket in their countries. The three big players have the TV markets sewn up and they don’t want to share the spoils. As one of the interviewees points out, the real question is whether test cricket needs money to survive and grow or whether test cricket exists to make money for the interests who control it.

This film isn’t great cinema but it is a useful exposure of what is happening at the top of international cricket that raises important questions for all cricket lovers. You can still see it in selected cinemas (a list on the website) and once it is available on DVD it must surely be seen in every cricket clubhouse.