Category: Documentary

I Am Not Your Negro (Switzerland-France-Belgium-US 2016)

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‘What is your problem?’

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?

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Documentary, truth and eagle hunters

Father and daughter in the Altai hills of Mongolia – one of the promo images from THE EAGLE HUNTRESS

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.

Issue 60 of MM includes my short piece on The Eagle Huntress

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.

Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle (UK 2017)

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.

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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 (UK/US/France 2017)

The ‘great and the good’ at the Cairo Conference in 1921. Gertrude Bell is between Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence towards the left of the line. Unlike most of the others who are struggling to keep control of their camels, Bell keeps hers perfectly still as an experienced camel-rider. (Photo © Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University)

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.

Gertrude Bell on an expedition in Duris, Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley at an Arab funerary monument, Qubbat Duris, in June 1900. (Photo © Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University)

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.

Britain on Film: Rural Life

‘Machynlleth (In the Heart of Cambria)’

This is a compilation of short films shot in the British countryside (and in the north of Eire) between 1904 and 1981. It is part of the Britain on Film series which has already offered Railways and has a forthcoming compilation Black Britain. This is an archive project to ‘digitise’ thousands of films, originating on celluloid, and making them available for public viewing. These ‘tours’ are distributed by the Independent Cinema Office, who have an excellent track record of providing features and archive material to independent cinemas. I saw this compilation at the Hyde Park Picture House as part of the ‘Leeds Young Film Festival’.

Before the film we had an interesting introduction by Kate McGann, a curator with the National Film Archive in the documentary section. We had some notes with details of the films included in the compilation but she added some particular comments on especially interesting aspects. Her main thrust was to provide a context for these films. She commented that much of the period represented on the films had seen real ‘change and upheaval’ in the countryside. An aspect that is the focus of Laurie Lee’s memorable ‘Cider with Rosie’: Lee provided the commentary for one of the films.

She also talked about the changes in technology and style across the films. Cecil Hepworth, who made the earliest film in the programme, would have been working with bulky cameras, and the supporting equipment like tripods etc. It seems likely that he staged much of the action, seemingly merely observed. And since synchronised sound only arrived in the 1930s several film rely on title cards [intertitles] to provide information for the audience.

A little later Basil Wright, filming in the Cheviot Hills, was able to work alone with his camera and accessories, but the now available sound would have been added later in the studio. Both these films were in black and white. But another example from the Pathé Company used colour stencilling, one of several techniques like hand painting and tinting/toning for adding colour.

By the 1950s colour film stock had become available and the Technicolor brand offered a rich palette of colours on screen. We had two films that used this technology. (Note, you can see one of the Technicolor Cameras at the Insight Collection at the National Media Museum. Signposts re Science and Media Museum).

The camerawork in many of the films relies mainly on the static shot. As technology developed camera movements like pans and tracks became available. All the film used some sort of editing (cutting between shots), though the later films are more sophisticated .

The programme also illustrated a number of genres in what we now term documentary. The earliest would have been known as ‘actualities’. Early on there were also Newsreels, and there was an extract form one of these. And there were examples of ‘travelogues’, ‘marketing films’ and ‘public relations’, both commercial and state funded. Some of the later films came from television networks and a couple of films really fall into the amateur or ‘home movie’ category.

The compilation ran for 75 minutes. It was partly chronological but partly thematic.

Machynlleth (In the Heart of Cambria) | Dir: unknown | UK | 1929 | 2 minutes

This glorious Pathécolor film of the ancient capital of Wales pops with the beauty of rural life. “

This short film was essentially a travelogue. It offered a series of shots, beautifully coloured with hand stencils. These included shots of a valley, river, trees in blossom and sheep grazing.

There was an accompaniment on the sound track by piano and flute.

O’er Hill and Dale | Dir: Basil Charles Wright | UK | 1932 | 18 mins

The first sound documentary produced in the UK, this is an affectionate and at points humorous account of a Scottish shepherd’s daily life in the Cheviot Hills.”

Basil Wright has been described as a ‘humanitarian poet’. He was a member of the rightly famed British Documentary Movement. The film mainly uses single static shots with a couple of pans over the landscape. But Wright (filming himself) makes extensive use of angles, especially low-angle shots that emphasise the scale of the mountainous vistas. He also (later in the studio) edited the film into a mini-narrative. So after seeing the Shepherd, Martin, with his flocks drama ensues when a storm sweeps across the hills. This leads into a ‘happy’ ending with a lamb saved from expiring.

The commentary, by Andrew Buchannan, and the orchestral accompaniment were added later. And the film was seen in British cinemas courtesy of Gaumont British.

Great Hucklow Jubilee | Dir: L. du Garde Peach | UK | 1935 | 9 mins

These gorgeous scenes of Great Hucklow capture the Derbyshire village’s preparations for the celebration of King George V’s Silver Jubilee, presenting a charming portrait of life and laughter in the Pennine village.”

This is an example of amateur filmmaking in the period. L. du Garde Peach actually worked in the Film industry as a scriptwriter. One of his most famous contributions was co-authoring the 1935 Yorkshire -based Turn of the Tide. Here though he is showing off his locality and the Village Players whom he organised.

The film uses intertitles and was accompanied by a piano and percussion on the soundtrack.

‘Dry Village’ | Dir: Unknown | UK | 1964 | 5 mins

A cautionary tale of the ‘dry village’ of Bessbrook, Co. Armagh, whose founder believed that the absence of a pub would remove the need for both the police and pawn brokers.”

This appears to be an ironic offering from television reporter James Boyce, presumably working with a network team. The film offers a series of interviews and comments. Boyce’s offerings for viewers appear to have capitalised on the eccentric, this is a good example. There is no hint of the ‘troubles, only a few years away.

The Village Pet | Dir: Unknown | UK | 1931 | 1 min

After Billy the seal was caught in the Wash and rehoused in the village pond, this heart-warming newsreel item shows him tentatively accepting a fish supper from his adoptive family – the good folks of Warham in Norfolk.”

This is an extract from a ‘Topical Budget’ newsreel; a newsreel series that ran from 1911 until 1931. The film opens with a highly embroidered intertitle. Then we meet Billy and the village inhabitants, especially the children, enamoured with this occupant of the pond.

The film has an accompaniment by piano and accordion.

West of England | Dir: Humphrey Swingler | UK | 1951 | 10 min

Glorious Technicolor casts a dreamlike spell over Gloucestershire’s Stroud valleys in this gorgeous short film. Author Laurie Lee contributes to the script for a narration which accompanies painterly images of evergreen scenery, people and industry. “

This was a fine example of the lustrous palette found in Technicolor. The commentary is read by Stephen Murray. The film is full of glorious shots of the Stroud Valley, old buildings and a graveyard, valley slopes, smooth rivers and nestling tress and flora. Later we enter an old linen factory where the rich colours of the cloth exploit the colour process. The film is edited into a  gentle narrative. The opening shows a horse and rider wending their way down hill. There follow later some good example of forward and reverse tracking shots. The commentary proposes a ‘secret’ which is followed till we hear and see an explanation of the Stroud cloth industry. At the end the horse and rider wend their way back uphill; then a cut shows us a modern tractor, presumably as comment that Stroud is modernising.

The commentary and orchestral accompaniment were added at Merton Park Studio,. And the film received a cinema release from United Artists.

Cold War Villages | Dir: Unknown| UK | 1981 | 3 min

In 1981, with no end to the Cold War in sight, plans are afoot in the Midlands to prepare for nuclear attack. These include a bunker for 400 people in a Rutland village with a population of 300, while in Derbyshire a local landlord takes responsibility for the somewhat simplistic advance warning system.”

This looks like one of those programme fillers in regional television broadcasts. The reporter, Terry Lloyd, introduces two mini-stories related to ‘the nuclear threat’ with interviews with local people. Rather like the ‘dry village’ this looks like an ironic comment on eccentricity, possibly even invented. By 1981 (despite the 1984 TV film Threads) the nuclear question was less of an issue than that of US missiles based in Britain.

The first case is a plan to turn a disused Rutland railway tunnel into a commercial bunker; £2,000 for a single person. Predictably it was never built.

The second tale is a Derbyshire pub with an ‘early warning system’. Among the limitations of this device are the absence of a warning device. There is (almost certainly staged) film of the publican warning the village on his bicycle. It seems the village was spared a nuclear attack.

Any Man’s Kingdom | Dir: Tony Thompson | UK | 1956 | 5 mins (extract)

A standout from the British Transport Films collection of travelogues – this one highlighting the attractions of Northumberland, the northernmost part of England. In this extract people travel from far and wide to enjoy the delights of Bellingham Fair, which includes traditional Cumberland wrestling.”

This film has a commentary and an orchestral accompaniment with actual sound including traditional pipes. It offers shots of the people attending this traditional fair and of some of the attractions. There is a fine sequence of a country dance edited through a series of close-ups of the band and the dancers. Towards the end of this extract twilight falls and a young couple are seen in silhouette followed by a pan over a river. The film, in Technicolor, was finalised at The Anvil Studio.

Blacksmith | Dir: Peter Baylis | UK | 1941 | 5 mins

‘Things aren’t what they used to be’: Mr Bosley, village blacksmith at Corfe, near Taunton, is the subject of this nostalgic study of ancient craftsmanship. As his commentary talks us through the process of shoeing a horse, the patiently composed images gracefully evoke an ageless sunlit Somerset day.”

The film was part of a series on ‘craftsmen’ by the Shell Film Unit. This commercial film’s documentary unit was launched in 1934 and carried on to the present, now ‘The Shell Film and Video Unit’. Its output of mainly short films was an important contribution to British documentary. This film follows a farm horse into the forge as we watch the traditional techniques of shooing in a series of close-ups and mid-shots. .

Eardisland Village | Dir: Unknown | UK | 1978 | 5 mins

The residents of Eardisland, a picture postcard Herefordshire village, are unhappy about their impending conservation status which would curtail new development. How can a village continue to thrive with an ever ageing population and no new blood?”

This films is from ATV’s ‘Today series’ with reporter Peter Green and shot in colour.

The camera takes us round the village and a series of interviews with inhabitants. There are few young people and ‘conservation’ threaten to embed this further. The catalyst for this concern is the proposed closure of the village school. Added to this is the comment that they have even

‘taken the vicar away’.

Despite the film the school did close in 1979.

Day in the Hayfields | Dir: Cecil M. Hepworth | UK | 1904 | 3 mins

Enchantingly beautiful, Cecil Hepworth’s modest interest film captures the essence of an English midsummer and the harvest in a time before tractors with men cutting hay using a horse-powered reaper. Less productive but very charming are the local babies and toddlers playing in the cut grass.”

Cecil Hepworth is one of the most important pioneers from the early days of British cinema. One of his most famous titles was a the key contribution to canine cinema, Recued by Rover (1905). Here he is filming on location alongside the Thames near to his studio at Walton-on-Thames. The film offers a series of static shots, almost like tableaus. we see the harvesting, transport by horse and cart, and the local children playing.

There is an accompaniment on piano and accordion, as lyrical as the film itself.

Skating on Lough Neagh | Dir: Unknown | UK | 1963 | 2 mins

As the Big Freeze plays havoc with the working life of Northern Ireland, there is plenty of time for play. The frozen Lough is a call to the adventurous and the ridiculous as dogs, dancers and even drivers take to the ice.”

This appears to be either amateur footage or something filmed for a local television network. It appears that it is actually the ‘Black Lough’ at Dungannon. And like some earlier films it is partly a record of oddities and eccentricities, including a group performing the twist and a mini car travelling over the frozen lake.

The end credits of the compilation include Stephen Horne who performed the musical accompaniment for the films without soundtracks. Stephen is a multi-instrumentalist as demonstrated in the accompaniments.

The films came courtesy of BFI National Archive, the Media Archive for Central England and the Northern Island Screen Digital Archive.

They were all transferred on to a 2K DCP. All were in either 1.33:1 or 1.37:1 ratios. The image quality was generally good. Note, as usual the DCP was in 1.85:1 and the titles for the individual films was spread across the complete frame; this was a shame as it prevented the cinema bringing in the masking to the Academy ratio. The sound was variable, presumably partly due to older prints and also to transferring optical or magnetic tracks on to digital.

Definitely a programme worth seeing. And there is more information about the films, the series and ‘Britain on Film’ at the BFI.

The Eagle Huntress (UK-Mongolia-US 2016)

One of many stunning promotional shots for 'The Eagle Huntress'

One of many stunning promotional shots for ‘The Eagle Huntress’

The Eagle Huntress is an extremely engaging film with a wonderful central character, a 13 year-old girl from a traditional Kazakh community located in Western Mongolia near the Altai Mountains. For its UK release, a film first screened at Sundance has received an extra narration from Daisy Ridley, the young star of Star Wars VII – The Force Awakens, the biggest film of 2016. Ridley is now named as Executive Producer of The Eagle Huntress and helped to promote the release with a strong emphasis on the concept of ‘girl power’. The BFI also supported the release by the small independent distributor Altitude, which opened the film on just 24 screens, subsequently widened to 50. After three weekends over the Christmas period the UK box office total was just £160,000. In the US, however, after 9 weeks, and on only 122 screens at most, it has made $2.3 million. In the US, Sony Classics is the distributor and the extra muscle from a studio probably means it got into more large cinemas. I suspect that the film will have ‘legs’ in the UK and a healthy future on DVD and online. We watched it at HOME Manchester on a Saturday afternoon with a healthy audience who certainly seemed to enjoy the film – as we did too.

So far, so good. But then I started to reflect on what I’d seen and a few question marks started to appear. I went into the screening having read some of the material in the Guardian and, I think, on BBC Radio 4’s The Film Programme. I didn’t have any ‘agenda’ as such going in, but I do have a general apprehension about what might be termed ‘National Geographic‘-type films – those mixing wildlife and social anthropology and offering beautiful ‘exotic’ landscapes etc. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the film in which we meet Aisholpan and her father Rys Nurgaiv. She wants to become an ‘eagle hunter’. Traditionally Rys would have trained his son, but the young man has joined the army. Aisholpan has been around eagles all her life. Her father has been a successful eagle hunter and he keeps a bird for seven years in order to hunt foxes and small mammals in the mountains. Hunting also gives him social status since the Eagle Hunt Festival is now a major tourist attraction in the town of Ölgii with its significant Kazakh diaspora community. He has no objection to training his daughter and his wife is equally supportive. The film comprises three main sections. Aisholpan finds a 3 month-old eaglet (females are preferred as they are bigger than males), successfully takes it from the nest and trains it; her father trains Aisholpan so she can take part in the festival and finally she goes with her father to hunt with her eagle in the winter to ‘prove’ she is a hunter. Interspersed between these sequences we see glimpses of Aisholpan’s life at home and at school (she’s a weekly boarder at school – her father collects her at weekends).

Aishoplan studies hard in school . . .

Aisholpan studies hard in school . . . (photo: Asher Svidensky)

The film is described as a documentary and in some ways it resembles a superior reality TV programme with extra wildlife footage (Simon Niblett is an experienced wildlife cinematographer, director Otto Bell’s background is in corporate documentaries for multinational companies – he’s a Brit working out of New York). My two concerns about the film are that little information is given to us about the background of the community at its centre and, secondly, everything just seems to go so well. The description I gave in the first paragraph above came from my later research into Kazakh traditions and the diaspora in Mongolia – nothing was said in the film.  In terms of the ‘ease’ of Aisholpan’s progress, in these kinds of narratives something usually ‘gets in the way’ of the hero – there are obstacles to overcome. Aisholpan seems to succeed almost immediately with everything she attempts. Her strong personality probably prevents us from noticing this smooth progress – we are happy for her, she deserves success. But doubts creep in. We wonder if perhaps the filmmaker has manipulated reality a little too much? But perhaps the crucial factor in increasing our worries is the gender equality question. The film seems intent on emphasising that Aisholpan is the first young woman to become an eagle hunter and that she faces stiff opposition. But the only ‘evidence’ of this is a montage of ‘grumpy old men’ who say “It’s not right” and similar. Yet everyone else – her father and mother, her grandfather, the judges at the Eagle Hunt Festival competition – supports her. What is going on?

Is the film a manipulation of the reality of gender roles in this Kazakh community?

When I started to read reviews and commentaries, I soon came across claims and counter-claims. The Canadian writer Meghan Fitz-James has been the most vociferous critic of the film’s ‘manipulation’ of the original story and you can read a piece by her here in which she also quotes from an article by Adrienne Mayor of Stanford University. (Fitz-James also adds a posting in which she explains how attempts were made to take down her original posting.) Adrienne Mayor explains how eagle-hunting has been carried out by the nomadic peoples of Central Asia for thousands of years:

Male bürkitshi [eagle falconers] are certainly more common than females today, although eagle hunting has always been open to interested girls. Archaeology suggests that eagle huntresses were probably more common in ancient times. (Mayor 2016)

Mayor also argues that far from a conservative society with fixed gender roles, these nomadic peoples developed a form of gender equality because men, women and children had to learn how to survive in such a harsh environment. Reading these papers, I remembered that the origins of the film were in a project undertaken by an Israeli photographer and documentary-maker Asher Svidensky. Director Otto Bell saw one of Svidensky’s original photos and decided he wanted to make a film. The two got together and Bell shot the scenes of capturing the eaglet. I think I remember an interview in which Bell said that his money ran out and he had to seek further backing. At this point I think he turned for advice to Morgan Spurlock the director of successful box office docs such as Supersize Me (US 2004). Spurlock eventually became one of the Executive Producers on The Eagle Huntress and on his website morganspurlock.com there is this description of the film:

. . . this film not only explores the life of a young girl striving to pursue her passion and break down gender barriers in a very traditional culture . . .

Whatever Otto Bell learned about selling his film, it certainly seems like it was based on a false premise. The more the gainsayers dig into this, the more obvious the manipulation becomes. How much the scenes (and the dialogue) were scripted doesn’t really matter, though I think the film would be improved by a little more ‘reality’. I don’t want to take anything away from Aisholpan or her story and I’m all in favour of inspiring young women with heroes like this young Kazakh girl. But it is unfortunate to say the least that the filmmakers have retained the false message about gender in Kazakh society and that they still call the film a documentary. The music too seems chosen to emphasise the appeal to the target audience but doesn’t seem to match the cultural context (I know I’m too old to appreciate the music!).

The whole story of the film’s production and distribution would make an excellent case study for Film Studies and Media Studies students in schools and FE/HE exploring what ‘documentary’ now means. Here is the official (US) trailer, note the steer in the narration:

(This post has been amended a couple of times, as I’ve found out more.)

LFF2016 #5: In the Last Days of the City (Akher Ayam El Medina, Egypt-UK-Germany 2016)

Khalid looks out across the city

Khalid looks out across the city

lff-2016.jpgThe first of two Egyptian films in my selection, In the Last Days of the City proved to be fascinating – perhaps not the easiest start to my festival viewing but certainly a film I’ve thought about a lot since. Produced, written and directed by Tamer El Said, it’s an independent film that has taken several years to make and now emerges as an almost documentary record of a particular district of Cairo before the Arab Spring of 2011. In the Q&A after the screening, the director and his lead actor Khalid Abdalla referred to a film that was “made with foresight” and “edited in hindsight” – preparations began in 2009 with shooting spread over 30 months and a long period of editing.

Khalid (the actor uses his own name) is a thirty-something filmmaker in Cairo attempting to complete a film. It wasn’t clear to me exactly what kind of film it is intended to be, but it includes footage of people he knows and it is inspired by material sent to him by filmmaker friends who are in Baghdad, Berlin and Beirut. At one point he meets these friends in Cairo. At other times he finds himself looking around the city and coming across isolated incidents – police beating demonstrators, a man assaulting a woman. At these moments we feel a sense of unease at Khalid’s seeming voyeurism.

The film draws on the repertoire of films about filmmaking. Khalid has several problems. He falls out with the editor who is trying to complete post production in his flat. Khalid is also being forced out of the flat and must pack his books and household goods and search for a new place to live, not helped by a ‘useless’ estate agent. One of his subjects for his film is his ex-girlfriend who seems increasingly reluctant to help him out. Khalid’s mother is in hospital and he tries to see her on a regular basis.

The filmmaking process for Tamer El Said began with the intent to create a fiction and then slid into reality. The director used his own flat as one of the film’s locations and did then find himself forced to move. The scenes on the street did pick up the tension in Cairo before 2011. The status of the film now before us is uncertain, fiction bleeds into reality and vice versa. What is most striking are the formal properties of the filmic image. So, with an image on the computer screen, the camera zooms in and we are taken into the ‘fictional world’ on screen – but this is revealed to be the ‘real world’ of Khalid’s friends. The same can happen in reverse of course. ‘What is real?’ is an age-old question in cinema. Here though it takes on a new urgency as major changes are taking place in Egyptian society. Two observations are important. First, we are seeing only a small part of the city from a middle-class perspective (i.e. not necessarily wealthy but educated/artistic/cultured) and secondly the beautifully composed images by Bassem Fayad seem to convey the sadness of a city approaching turmoil implied by the title. This is certainly a festival film that will be a difficult sell for cinema distribution. It’s important though that this kind of Egyptian independent film gets seen internationally and broadens the perspective offered by different forms of Egyptian popular cinema.

LFF2016 #2: The Graduation (Le concours, France 2016)

Three of the practitioners on an interview panel for the third round of the application process for La Fémis

Three of the practitioners on an interview panel for the third round of the application process for La Fémis

lff-2016.jpgLa Fémis is the state film school in Paris once known as IDHEC. Every year several hundred applicants for new places are put through a competitive entrance exam which can last for three months and three rounds of ‘analysis’ (in this case of a clip from a Kurosawa Kiyoshi film), projects and interviews. Claire Simon’s documentary follows one cohort through all three phases and finishes with the group photograph celebrating the formal acceptance of the small group of successful applicants (around 40?). Simon herself is a graduate of the school and she follows the individual candidates objectively – this isn’t like reality TV.

La Fémis works on the principle that industry personnel are responsible for selecting each year’s new intake using an agreed set of guidelines and as we might expect, the most gripping parts of the documentary are arguably those in which we see these practitioners arguing among themselves about who should be accepted.

It’s very difficult for me to know how this film might be received by audiences with little sense of the issues at stake in an exercise like this. I’ve spent a large chunk of my working life thinking about examining and assessing students and I was fascinated by this insight. All the interview panels and assessors took their roles seriously – but often ended up with contradictory conclusions about who was a suitable applicant to recommend. In the clip below, disagreement about a candidate in Round 2 (the project) hinges on if it matters that he is ‘crazy’ – and someone wonders how a Cronenberg or a Dreyer would have got on in a competition like this:

La Fémis takes candidates for distinct specialist roles such as director, screenwriter, cinematographer etc. I was also pleased to see that there is now an intake of students who want to specialise in film distribution – and we see some being interviewed by cinema owners and distributors. Later, in the Q & A after the screening, we heard that La Fémis also now takes students from ‘diverse’ backgrounds for one-year courses t enable them to network and make contacts with industry personnel. This sounds like a progressive move, but I hope that they will also increase the number of students from diverse backgrounds for the standard four-year course. In relation to this Claire Simon made an important point in the Q & A when she said that she realised, in the edit suite, that only students from certain backgrounds were able to talk about themselves in interviews in the ways expected by the applications procedures. This puts pressure on the practitioners on interview panels who have to look for the signs of an applicant who could develop these skills even if they don’t have them at the moment. It might also suggest that the system needs tweaking.

I’m not sure what the possibility of seeing this film in the UK will be but if you get the chance I would heartily recommend it. I was impressed by the industry personnel taking part in the selection process. They were actively seeking to select students who might benefit from the course. Some were more progressive than others but all had a very realistic view of the opportunities and were genuinely trying to help candidates whilst also trying to maintain standards – and protecting their colleagues from candidates who might be difficult to work with and not productive. It isn’t an easy task. I don’t know how La Fémis compares to film schools elsewhere but this film confirmed my view of French cinema as healthy in the current climate.