Category: Documentary

Three classic documentaries

Drifters

Drifters

These films are screening at the Hyde Park Picture House in a special event this coming Sunday (March 15th 2015) From Drifters to Night Mail: The British Documentary Movement. The screening will offer 35mm prints from the bfi. The films are all seminal contributions to the British Documentary Movement and its work for, first the Empire Marketing Board, and then for the GPO Film Unit.

Drifters 1929, black and white, silent – originally 56 minutes.

This study of herring fisherman in the North Sea was directed, edited and partly photographed by John Grierson, the filmmaker who led the documentary movement until he moved to the National Film Board of Canada. The main cinematography was by Basil Emmott, who had already contributed some fine location work to the 1927 drama Hindle Wakes. The film commences in a fishing village, follows a fishing vessel out to sea, observes its catches, and then follows it back to harbour where the caught fish enter the national and international markets. Much of the film relies on location shooting, on land and at sea in the fishing vessel. There are also insert shots filmed at a Marine Biological Research Station. The film demonstrates the influence on Grierson and his colleagues of two of the outstanding innovators of the 1920s. One was Robert Flaherty, whose new form of ‘documentary’ (Nanook of the North, 1922) influenced the treatment and the narrative of Drifters. The other influence is Soviet montage and in particular Sergei Eisenstein. The latter’s Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin. 1925), along with Drifters was, part of a triple bill at the London Film Society in 1929, together with an early work by Walt Disney.

Grierson’s use of montage is more conventional than that of Eisenstein and his film has a linear narrative. But it also offers symbolism and abstract motifs for the viewer.

The film demonstrates not only Grierson’s cinematic talents but also his shrewd manoeuvres within state institutions. The film’s topic played to the interest of a key civil servant in the Treasury regarded as an expert of the British Herring Industry.

Housing Problems 1936, black and white, sound film, 16 minutes.

This study in social reportage was sponsored by the gas industry. However, apart from a final comment, this is not a paean to a capitalist corporation but a hard-headed and powerful piece of social observation and implicit criticism. Directed by Edward Anstey and Arthur Elton the film presented scenes of squalor in slum housing and, fairly uniquely for this period, working class people were seen describing their own world and situation. Other work by the documentary movement did offer such voices, but the situation and voices in this film are the most compelling. The film ventures into the ‘other world’ of ordinary lives paralleled in the work of Mass Observation and the writings of George Orwell. There is a positive message at the end, featuring in part the Leeds Quarry Hill Development of the time: a note of posthumous irony. If John Grierson returned today he would be hard put to produce a film on herring fishing: but Anstey and Elton would have no difficulty in presenting again a world of slum housing and exploitation.

Night Mail, 1936, black and white, sound film, 24 minutes.

This was the most popular of the 1930 British documentary films: it actually enjoyed screenings in commercial cinemas. The directors, Harry Watt and Basil Wright, followed the night mail train from London to Glasgow, ‘carrying letters’ for all and sundry. The film used extensive location work with some striking cinematography. I especially treasure a travelling shot as a Border collie vainly chases after the speeding train. Some of the interiors were filmed in a studio setting, carefully simulating the rocking motion of the train. The first 20 minutes of the film are in fairly conventional documentary style, with an authoritative voice-over. The final four minutes follow a different form, with poetry (W. H. Auden) and music (Benjamin Britton). The credits list Alberto Cavalcanti as sound director. Cavalcanti had worked in the European avant-garde cinema. One version I heard suggested that in fact two films were in preparation by the Unit. And they were finally amalgamated to make this complete film, [there are two earlier sequences that bear the inprint of Cavalcanti and his team]. This certainly makes sense of the final form of the film. Moreover, whilst the last four minutes do have the touch that one finds in Cavalcanti’s work the bulk of the film has the established approach that one can find in other films by Watt and Wright. If this was the case, it was a happy marriage: though as with Drifters we no longer have a rail system to inspire this sort of filmmaking.

There is a posting on Drifters at

https://cinetext.wordpress.com/2015/03/18/drifters-uk-1929/

Glasgow FF15 #11: The Salt of the Earth (Le sel de la terre, France/Brazil/Italy 2014)

One of the images from Sebastião_Salgado's project 'Workers'

One of the images from Sebastião Salgado’s project ‘Workers’

GFT3 was packed for the second screening of this documentary at 10.45 in the morning. It all bodes well for a new film by Wim Wenders for whom documentary has been the most successful film mode in the UK in the last twenty years (i.e. Buena Vista Social Club, 1999 and Pina, 2011). He co-directs Salt of the Earth with Julian Ribeiro Sagado and it is his co-director’s father, the photographer Sebastião Salgado who is the subject of the film.

Going into the screening, the only thing I knew about Sebastião Salgado was that he was a great photographer as evidenced by an exhibition I had seen at what was then the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford in the 1990s. A single B+W image of the thousands of workers toting loads up and down the steep sides of an open cast gold mine in Brazil has stayed with me ever since. That image (and associated film footage and stills – see the image above) is used early in the film to introduce us to Sebastião before we see him at work more recently and then flashback to his university days and the launching of his career.

Salgado was born in North-East Brazil on a farm/plantation and after degrees in economics he found himself working for agencies like the World Bank and making frequent trips to Africa. He was living in Paris with his wife Lélia when the couple made the brave decision to invest in a new joint career in photography. Sebastião became a social documentary photographer who spent months and then years away from home for long periods on ambitious projects like ‘Workers’ and Lélia worked with the agencies, catalogued the images and organised the project material.

My viewing companion is a photographer and he confirmed the talents and skills that Salgado employs. Working mainly in B+W in the earlier projects, he shows great technical mastery of exposure and light control, most evident in the extraordinary depth of field of massive landscape images. He also has a fabulous eye for composition and, presumably enormous patience and the social skills to persuade his subjects to ‘pose’ informally to make his compositions work.

Salgado working on his latest project in the rain forest of Indonesia.

Salgado working on his latest project in the rain forest of Indonesia.

The key moment in Salgado’s story came when he experienced the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda. After coping with other disasters like drought in the Sahel and blazing oilfields in Kuwait, the massacres in Rwanda devastated him and he lost his faith in humanity. In the final stage of his life he has turned to wildlife, the environment and isolated communities who live off the land. We follow him shooting for new projects in Siberia, and the rainforests of South America and Indonesia. He and Lélia have also transformed his family farm, ravaged by deforestation, and replanted 2 million saplings as the basis for a new national park. Salgado’s life has been remarkable – and he is a good storyteller.

The documentary is expertly compiled from archive and new footage. France is the main production partner and Salgado speaks in French most of the time. Wenders provides an excellent introductory commentary in English (the language of international cinema) and there is some Portuguese. I found every moment of the 109 minutes compelling and I think this will be a big hit. Salgado’s images on a big screen are extremely powerful. I should add one note of caution. When I spoke to a friend who also remembered seeing the exhibition in Bradford, he said that he did worry that the images had been presented as primarily art objects and not in their proper political context. I understand this argument and I think that it is something to consider, but in terms of the film’s narrative I think that Wenders and Julian Salgado foreground this issue so that viewers are aware of it. Even so there are a handful of images from Africa in both famine and genocide sequences that are truly horrific and some audiences will find upsetting.

Curzon have got the rights for the film in the UK but since it doesn’t have a BBFC certificate yet it may be some time before it hits cinemas. Here is the official trailer. Feast your eyes on these images and I defy you not to plan to see the film if at all possible. You won’t be disappointed.

Citizenfour (Germany-US-UK 2014)

Citizenfour for the people

Citizenfour for the people

Edward Snowden is a very 21st century hero: whistleblowing on how everyone is being spied upon via compromised networks. Whistleblowers are the heroes of our time and it’s an indictment of our time that they often end up more vilified than the criminals they are revealing. Snowden says, in Laura Poitras’ fabulous film, he hopes that when he is ‘shut up’, like the beheaded Hydra, seven other whistleblowers will appear behind him. They haven’t, testimony to the treatment they know they will receive but also the complicity that those who work for ‘security agencies’ have in the destruction of our ability to have a private life.

Along with Wikileaks, Snowden revealed what many of the left have always suspected: the security services operate beyond the law and legislatures have no desire the rein them in. Although this fact wasn’t a surprise, the breadth of their infiltration of our communications is still shocking. Without people like Snowden, and reporters such as Glenn Greenwald, along with The Guardian newspaper, we would well and truly be screwed. Or would we? We probably are anyway.

It’s unclear to me what affect the revelations have had upon the NSA, in America, and GCHQ in the UK; the latter, Snowden says, has even greater penetration of British communications than the NSA has over American’s. The response of many people seems to be to shrug as if it isn’t important. This might be because they are politically on the right (though it is quite striking that the libertarian right – to which Snowden belongs – has mostly been quiet) or they don’t want to hear such disturbing talk.

Many years ago, when I sold hotdogs at Chester Zoo during the summer, my fellow salesman delighted in regaling me with his belief that the ‘general public is thick’. I still don’t believe this but I think ‘the general public is ignorant’. Part of this is due to consumption of the right-wing media. Take the Daily Mail‘s front page (yesterday) that expressed shock that the charity Cage, which assists people who’ve been ‘targeted’ by the security services, should say that it is possible that ‘Jihadi John’s’ unspeakable behaviour (in beheading victims on behalf of ISIS) was in part caused by harassment by MI5. The Mail, in particular, is like a child who avoids hearing anything contrary to their beliefs by putting their hands over their ears and sings ‘la-la-la . . . ‘ It’s obvious that harassment could cause radicalisation but to acknowledge this would lead to questions about the effectiveness of security policy. Toward the end of Citizenfour it’s revealed that the NSA has 1.2 million people on its watch list! Whilst computer surveillance can watch us all, the security services don’t have the resources to directly monitor everyone on the lists. At some point they may decide, in order for us to be safe, internment without trial of suspects is needed.

The ignorance of the public can also be ‘wilful': they are more interested in celebrity gossip than issues that affect their lives. For example, on Thursday the FCC guaranteed net neutrality, a triumph against the increasing commercialisation of the internet, however the internet was ‘full’ of ‘the dress’.

UgbPOwi

Like George Romero’s zombies finding shopping malls reassuring, many won’t deal with the issues of our time (until they are the victims).

All this surveillance is done in the name of the bogus ‘war on terror’. Terrorists have no power to threaten nation states so they commit atrocities in the hope that the states will over-react and create a fertile ground for further recruitment of terrorists. I would say ‘stupidly our leaders over-react every time’ except I believe they know exactly what they are doing: terrorist acts become an excuse for more government control. In this way ISIS and governments have a symbiotic relationship: the victims are ordinary people of all cultures.

Well done to the Academy for awarding this documentary an Oscar; it was by far the most important film of the contenders but Radio 4’s Today programme managed to avoid mentioning it. Hopefully the award will raise its profile (it’s not available on DVD in the UK) as will Channel 4’s screening (in a graveyard slot but that matters little these days). Quite simply this is a film that all should see though it will be difficult to use in schools without plenty of background information but it is necessary to fit it into the curriculum!

Glasgow FF15 #1: Stray Dog (US 2014)

Ronnie Hall with the latest addition to his family.

Ronnie Hall with the latest addition to his family.

Debra Granik didn’t perhaps get the praise she deserved for Winter’s Bone, one of the best (and most genuine) of recent American ‘independents’. I was keen to see her first documentary feature.

Ronnie ‘Stray Dog’ Hall is a Vietnam veteran who forty years later seems to have come to terms with his experiences and found a way to live a fulfilling life in rural Missouri where he’s the effective leader (and landlord) of a community based in a trailer park. Ronnie’s life revolves around family and friends and, most importantly, the various Veterans’ Associations and memorial events – which with ongoing service in Afghanistan are increasing all the time. Ronnie is also a biker and his trip to Washington DC with his local chapter is an important early narrative strand in the documentary – but it doesn’t dominate the film as much as the publicity suggests.

This is a classic (and therefore conventional) observational documentary. Granik and her crew are invisible and Ronnie as a strong character leads us through his story without much need of intertitles and no commentary as such. We simply follow him around and occasionally glimpse his friends and relatives without him. There is no discernible ‘political’ or ‘social’ message in the film, but the documentary performs a political role here simply by what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t seek out the glib signifiers of a typical view of the American heartland and it doesn’t attempt to select or emphasise specific aspects of Ronnie’s life to make a ‘statement’. Ronnie is clearly a nice guy who is loved and respected. He wears the US flag with pride but he has no time for politicians. He supports the Veterans’ causes and he has accepted counselling. He knows he’ll never come to terms with what happened in Vietnam. He’s been married twice to first a Korean and then to a Mexican and he welcomes his second wife’s 19 year-old sons to America just as he cares about his own granddaughter’s future.

I liked Ronnie and I like the documentary. The music, as in Winter’s Bone, is very good and Ronnie likes his dogs. I hope this gets a UK release. It’s the best kind of ‘feelgood’ film.