Category: Documentary

¡Viva! 25 #5: A Journey to the Fumigated Towns (Viaje a los pueblos fumigados, Argentina 2017)

Fernando Solanos with the camera in a maternity unit for babies suffering from the effects of agri-toxins

Fernando Solanas is a veteran documentarist and political activist who is now an Argentinian Senator. Along with Octavio Getino he wrote the statement that formulated the concept of Third Cinema in 1969. Fifty years later Solanos is still attempting to make films that demonstrate a different voice and a different argument in global cinema. This new film is a detailed and coherent attack on multinational agri-business and its rape of the Argentinian ecology. As a film it does have flaws but they don’t prevent the powerful message from being communicated.

I had expected a documentary using various non-conventional devices to make its argument, but formally this is quite conventional with Solanos and his crew moving around Argentina, starting in the far north around Salta. The footage that is captured is almost low-res and I wonder if some of it was pre-digital video. Even the higher-res footage seems de-saturated at times and the overall impression is of greens and greys. The strength of the film is the ways in which different aspects of the central problem are explored in detail and then brought into the overall argument.

In the  beginning we see the felling of vast acreages of ‘centenarian forest’ and the burning of the stumps so that the land can be cleared for yet more soybean monoculture (Argentina is the third largest global producer of soybeans and a major exporter). The focus here is on several different but connected issues. The first of these is that the deforestation ignores the land rights of the local indigenous people the Wichí. Interviewed, one of the Wichí leaders says they have been living on the land for 200 years. As well as the large trees the bulldozers also uproot the smaller trees, one of which bears a fruit that is a major food source for the Wichí. Indigenous people seem to receive little support from local or national government in the face of actions by the large multinationals behind the deforestation. The film returns to the plight of indigenous people at the end of the film. The planting of soybeans is accompanied by heavy spraying of the crop with pesticides and fertilisers. Crops of various kinds are hybrid varieties and farmers are trapped by the large companies who are making profits, often benefiting from state-funded research into new seed varieties. Hybrid seeds cannot be saved for planting next year and farmers must buy new seed for each crop. Large bio-tech companies like Monsanto are going one-step further and genetically modifying cash crops to be able to withstand the toxins that kill insects. They have persuaded some governments that these GM seeds are produced by a unique process that can be patented so that the companies can charge even higher prices without fear of competition. (The same practice which operates in some pharmacy contexts – Monsanto is now owned by Bayer.) Monoculture also destroys jobs. Large acreages of a single crop are easily harvested by modern computer-controlled machinery. The groves of peaches that might have existed previously employed armies of pickers. Latin America has suffered heavily from the migration of the rural unemployed to already overcrowded cities.

A field of soybeans replaces woodland and its rich ecosystem

The new monoculture has other bad consequences. The ecological change has forced out beekeepers and the crop is now at the mercy of global prices for soybeans (and the oil and flour extracted). Like all monocultures, moving away from traditional and largely organic methods requires more inputs of fertilisers and insecticides. These are all noted by Solanos and his team as well as the impact of spraying which is often carelessly done by aerial delivery that allows spray to drift over schools and villages. The documentary extends this investigation to show that the high levels of spraying (fumigados) have created a major problem of agri-toxins entering the water supply and being ingested by large groups of people. As well as visiting hospital wards, the team led by Solanas interview many local people, including teachers and parents of young children and claims are also made about the damage to various groups of workers in silos, nurseries and transportation.

Having established the range of problems with the monoculture, the alternatives are also explored – mixed farming and organic farming/horticulture – before returning to the plight of indigenous peoples. There is some comedy in these sequences which leavens the relentless presentation of the damage being done. Solanas is offered a glass of ‘chlorophyll juice’ (a smoothie of wheat grass) which he reluctantly accepts and swallows, putting on a brave face. There is also a strange contradiction in two of the statements we hear. On the one hand we are told that the agri-toxins from spraying and run-offs into the water supply are everywhere in Argentina and everyone tested has traces of them in their bloodstream and on the other we are told that Argentina has more certified organic growing land than anywhere else. Perhaps I misread the subs?

Indigenous people lose their land and their access to food – marginalised yet again by authorities who do not support their rights

This film succeeds as a ‘social documentary’. It isn’t just about voiceover narration, facts and figures and talking head experts. Solanas and his crew travel to all parts and meet people and talk to them. Also important is the way the different issues are brought together. On the downside, I think some of the issues could be explained a little more clearly. I’m not sure what local audiences and other Latin American audiences will make of the film. From a European perspective and I should state, that of someone who has thirty years of practising organic horticulture, most of the issues in the film were familiar. What I learned was the detail of how indigenous people are once again marginalised and made almost invisible. The damage to eco-systems is a global problem (the palm oil plantations of South East Asia present some of the same issues) and it would seem to be that Argentina needs to strengthen regulation of agri-business practices to a considerable degree. It also makes me aware of the dangers facing the UK if we leave Europe and are pushed into trade deals without the same protection we have as part of the EU.

This documentary was followed by a discussion after its first screening at ¡Viva!. It would be interesting to know what was said. Below is a French trailer for the film and a snippet with English subs (which ends very abruptly):

I Often Think of Hawaii (Ich denke oft an Hawaii, Bundesrepublik Deutschland, 1978)

This was an experimental documentary that plays with style, representation and recreation. The subject is a young woman, Carmen who lives with her mother Ruth and brother Tito in a high-rise housing estate.

Her father, a Puerto Rican soldier, abandoned the family. All that is left to remind them of him is a handful of exotic postcards and his record collection of Caribbean and Hawaiian music.

The film is a documentary and includes observational film: for example Ruth leaving the tower block in the morning to go to work. We also see her and Carmen carrying out the cleaning duties involved. Then there are interviews, with Carmen, Ruth and Tito, talking direct to camera.

But these are intercut with far more oddball sequences. In these Carmen dresses up in flamboyant clothes and enacts fantasies for the camera;

I dream of a great love.

In other sequences the title is made sense as the collection of post-cards and records are presented. In the case of the records Carmen [for most] translates the lyrics, variously in English, Spanish and Portuguese, into German. The English sub-titles translate the German dialogue not the original sound tracks. Something similar happens when Carmen quotes poetry, here by Paul Éluard and another French poet.

The film mainly uses colour but some of the fantasies by Carmen are in black and white. The emphasis is on mid-shots and close-ups which generates a strongly subjective feel. The film runs for eighty-five minutes and nearly half of the film must be non-realist sequences. The film also lacks an obvious chronology which gives it a Brechtian feel. The film does have an opening and closing sequence, in both cases we see Carmen on the Berlin S-Bahn. It is as if the bulk of the film is a dream sequence.

The director Elfi Mikesch was there to introduce the film. She owns that the film was

“Inspired by the camp aesthetics of American (USA) underground films …”

This was her first film and she continued in a career that predominately worked on documentaries.

Some of the fantasy sequences have a definite kitsch sense. But there is also a sense of montage techniques in the manner of the Soviet avant-garde. Visually we have discontinuities and disruptions and aurally we have asymmetrical sound. This is really a melange of stylistic tropes.

In fact we were fortunate to see the film. It was shot of 16mm reversal stock and when the technicians at Deutsche Kinemathek came to attempt the restoration they found much of the print had decayed. But they were able to rescue the film and produced a digital restoration which we watched on a DCP.

I noted that this is very much Carmen’s world. Ruth, the mother, is mainly presented in terms of her work. The brother Tito appears several times talking to camera but I did not feel we learnt about his world. He did seem to be unsympathetic to Carmen’s point-of-view.

The setting of the film is important. The family lived in one of the towers in Berlin’s Gropiusstadt. This was a housing project designed by the modernist architect Walter Gropius. He was the founder of the famous Bauhaus School. This was a post-war housing complex designed along the lines and values of the Bauhaus. However other factors intervened. The erection of the Berlin Wall restricted the space for building which resulted in tall tower blocks. Apparently by the 1970s the complex was dominated by poor families with the resultant economic and social problems. As a background to this portrait the sense of that area was important.

I did notice one oddity in the Brochure, which suggested that Carmen’s ‘tropical world’ provided a counter-point to the ‘barren projects’;

. . . it suddenly seemed as if the conditions in these petty bourgeois living rooms could, in fact, be changed.

Everything about Ruth, her work, and her children, as indeed about the projects, suggested a working class environment. I suspect the reference to ‘petty bourgeois’ refers to the content of Carmen’s dreams of escape.

The film was also the object of a particular discussion in a seminar organised by Deutsche Kinemathek. ‘The Translation of Films’. This engaged with the

the translation of films into other languages . . .

including both the silent and sound eras. So,

director Elfi Mikesch. film restorer Julia Wallmüller, and translator Rebekah Smith will discuss the subtitles created for the 2018 digitally restored version [of this title] . . . A comparison of the new subtitles and the ones from the film’s release year demonstrate how standards and available methods have changed over the years . . . (Retrospective Brochure)

It was clear that the new subtitles offered a more accurate rendering of the German and also that they fitted into the editing of the film more effectively. Unfortunately there is no surviving material about the process of translation in 1978. But comparing clips demonstrated that the titling did not give complete rendering of the German. Rebekah and Julia made the point that modern digital methods enabled a higher degree of pinpoint accuracy in inserting these titles.

Elfi Mikesch made an interesting comment that she had felt that the 1978 subtitles made the film seem slower and longer. Unfortunately there was not an opportunity to explore this issue further. I had to leave for another screening but a friend advised me that the discussion only considered the issues around subtitles. So it seems there was no discussion of the translation from several languages into German; in that case German viewers heard not the original but a translator version; and English language viewers would be twice removed from the original lyrics of the songs and the words of the poetry.

So this is a complex issues that only in the last decade has become the subject of detailed research. The film was interesting in its own right as an example of avant-garde cinema and with its portrait of a subjective take on a particular place and people in 1970s Germany. But as a ‘text’ it offered an object for exploring the medium of cinema.

Berlin – Prenzlauer Berg (Deutschland 1990)

The actual full title is Encounters between 1st of May and 1st July of 1990 / Begegnungen Zwischen dem 1. Mai und dem 1. Juli 1990. This documentary offers a portrait of one area in that hiatus between the capitulation of the DDR and the formal reunification of Germany.

bracketed chronologically by International Workers Day and the monetary and economic unification of the two Germanys. Retrospective Brochure).

The district of Prenzlauer Berg is close to the centre of Berlin and dates from the 1920s. Its population is now about 160,000. In 1990 part of the district ran right up against the dividing wall.

We meet a rock band playing on abandoned east German border territory, Antifascist demonstrators from both sides of the Berlin Wall, and squatters trying to turn an occupied building into a cultural centre.

This is what the Brochure calls the ‘short summer of anarchy’.

In between these actions we see an hear from local residents. Seniors at a dancing session; bohemians involved in squatting along with transvestites; women workers at what was a state run textile factory; and owners/managers of a clothing store and snack bar. In the early stages of the film the sense of anarchy is powerful. Institutions appear to have stop operating. Some people carry on as before, like the dancing pensioners,; others strike a radical new note as with the squatters.

But in the latter stages as unification approaches the economic dominates. The Osmark (East German currency) is replaced by the West German mark. On July 1st suddenly people must change over their currencies, bearing in mind the exchange value. For ordinary citizens the rate was at par; but large holdings were at lower rates. The liveliness in the film is replaced by emptier streets. It is early in the day but it seems like a metaphor of the uncertainty for people.

The director Petra Tschörtner worked with cinematographer Michael Lösche and then editor Angelika Arnold to produce this tapestry of activities and people. We saw the film in its original format of of 35mm. The director commented

I wanted to document the special attitude towards life in this neighbourhood. The people of Prenzlauer Berg always tolerated greater freedom of action than others.

The local people appear to have enjoyed the licence and freedom associated with Carnival. The area itself is changing, not necessarily for the better. The final shot is of a demolished building disappearing in clouds of dust. An ambiguous symbol of the changes.

Who’s Afraid of the Bogeyman (Wer fürchtet sich vorm Schwarzen Mann, Deutsche Demokratische Republik 1989)


This DDR film is full of unintentional irony, offering a portrayal of the East German state only a short time before its collapse. Whilst this documentary does not address the social and political contradictions in East Germany the portrait it offers clearly presents a state that is mired in the out-of-date technologies and social administration: the writing is on the wall.

The ‘bogeyman’ of the title is the coal delivery man. A literal translation would be ‘Who fears in front of Black Man’. We visit a private coal company which is run by a woman but whose workforce is entirely male. One sign of outmoded technologies is how many of the homes, including apartments in tower blocks, rely on coal as a heating fuel. Besides running on long after the use in advanced western economies the coal delivery business in Berlin has other distinctive features. The coal can come in sacks but also pre-packed in what look like small suitcases. And the wood for fires comes in neatly bound bundles. When we see customers calling in to place order we hear them asking for hundredweights of fuel. This is a different world from Britain, even when the working class kept their coal ‘in the bath’.

The seven man team faces heavy physical labour and dirty work. By the end of a day they are covered in grit and grime. Whilst there are showers at the depot they are fairly primitive. This applies to all the machinery. The deliveries are made in a motorised truck with some sort of petrol engine but with very low horse power. In the course of the film what seems to be an axle needs repair. The repair work is completely heath-Robertson. It seems to take a couple of days, with hammers. sledgehammers, acetylene torches and sundry other tools. Finally and triumphantly the axle is removed, but how the truck is then made roadworthy stretches beyond the length of this film.

The owner of the business is a resolute and extremely competent woman. She is assisted by her daughter who would take over thee businesses one day. Whilst the machinery might seem primitive the organisation is efficient. The owner is also articulate and talks of her firm and of it social context with fluidity. There is something similar when we hear the workforce answering questions.

The discussion subjects range from the building of the Berlin Wall and possible escape, [one tried], to child abuse and suicide as well as prison and alcoholism.” (Retrospective Brochure)

All are extremely good natured. The view of this segment of society suggests a working class with solidarity and satisfaction. There is no hint of impending doom. As one historian remarked the film has an air of whimsicality but its characters and their situation are completely engaging. The less than sixty minutes of the film offers us in their lives and their work with both sympathy and affection.


The director, Helke Misselwitz, was there to introduce the film. She remarked that when the topic was broached she was determined to find a firm with a woman at the helm. She successfully found one and also one that offered a fascinating set of portraits. The film was also visually satisfying, down to the cinematography of Thomas Pienert which captures the place and the people with unassuming grace. Pienert also worked on the screenplay with Helke Misselwitz. It does seem that this narrative emerged from their working study at the depot.

We also had as short film from the DDR, Nude Portraits – Gundula Schulze / Aktofotografie , Z. B. Gundula Schulze, directed by Helke Misselwitz in 1983. It seems that Gundula Schulze, a young graduate at the time, has become a famous photographer. Then she wrote a thesis on ‘nude photography in East Germany’. At the start we are shown some fairly stereotypical nude portraits, not any different from those that circulate in capitalist societies. Then the film introduces two strands. Nude photographs taken by Schulze of women aiming to present them as ‘whole women’. At times this colour footage is intercut with black and white 16mm footage of working women, here as cashiers at a line of tills in a supermarket. The contrasting images make the point well. And Schulze’s portraits are fine examples of women presented with their own character.

This film ran 11 minutes and had been copied onto a DCP. The feature documentary was screened from a good 35mm print. Both films had English sub-titles.

Is This Fate? (Von wegen ,Schicksal’, Bundesrepublik Deutschland 1979)

Von wegen Schicksal – Bundesrepublik Deutschland 1979; Regie: Helga Reidemeister

This bears a resemblance to fly-on-the wall documentaries but it includes sequences of the making of the film which add a layer of complexity.

Irene Rakowitz, 48, is a divorced mother of four, who lives with her two youngest children in Berlin’s Märkischer Viertel district, surviving on disability payments.” (Retrospective Brochure).

She lives in the same high-rise block as her ex-husband. The two eldest children are closer to the father than to the mother. The Märkischer Viertel district was built between 1964 and 1974 by GeSoBau Gesellschaft für sozialen Wohnungsbau (Association for Social Apartment Construction). Close to what was the Berlin wall separating east and west Berlin it appears to be a concentrated area of relatively m modern working class housing. From what we saw of the buildings the tower blocks have the advantages and disadvantage of equivalent development in Britain in the same period.

What we see is the every-day life of Irene and her two children with her talking direct camera about how she manages. Later in the film we see similar sequences presenting the ex-husband and the elder daughters. There is clearly a high level of antagonism between the two now separated families.

Her [Reidemeister) documentary of a family hell, in which conflicts escalate instead of abating, had a strong point of view and was not uncontroversial in 1982. [when screened on West German television].

In fact this is not a family but two separate families who seem at war. But one point that concerned me was to what degree this ‘war’ has been facilitated or even aggrandised by the documentary. In a reflexive style the film opens with Irene at a 16mm editing table watching some of the footage; shot in black and white. Later in the film we see her watching her two daughters, now either married or partnered and working, commenting in stark and virulent terms on their mother. Remarkably at this point Irene does not seem especially fazed by this. At another point we watch some earlier footage from 1972 but I was uncertain what point this offered.

This struck me as a typical example of the television work in the period as fly-on-the wall became a recognisable genre. This example has the fascinating strengths but worrying weaknesses of the genre. It also seemed to me to go beyond the acceptable in the particular sequence where Irene watches her daughters holding forth. But straying beyond the ethical norms of traditional documentary was a common feature or failing of fly-on-the-wall.

The director, who scripted the film with Irene, Helga Reidemeister, was a social worker in the area. This production seems to have been the start of a filmmaking career. Her choice of title seemed to me odd. Did she think that the situation was fated? Did she think that it was an example of how people suffer in certain social conditions? In fact the people studied were all fairly articulate. Their lives and comments were always fascinating. But I did not sense that the film actually noted whether they were typical or atypical, and thus, what they represented.

The film had been restored in 2014 by Deutsche Kinemathek, so that and the programming presumably reflect a particular period and approach. But I wondered how far this work was representative or a unique take.

Do Right and Fear No One (Tue recht und scheue niemand, Bundesrepublik Deutschland 1975)


The catalogue described the film thus:

A portrait of a woman’s life between 1915 and 1975, in Jutta Brücker’s documentary, her mother looks back at the 60 years of her life . . .

In fact, I felt that this was only part of the film and most notable in the early stage. This in part due to the style and content that is used,

An ingenious collage of picture and sound accompanies the mother’s narrative, a tapestry of proverbs [as in the title], pop songs, marching music , and the noise of war.

Jutta’s mother provides much of the narration, some of it personal some of it commentary on the incidents displayed. The picture that emerges if a complex interaction between one life and the broader social canvas.

This is less a criticism that noting how the film works. The key element are family photographs together with 100s of photographs taken by August Sander between 1901 and the 1940s; and more recent photographs by other artists. This is effectively a montage as is the soundtrack. Black and white photographs, when handled effe3ctively, are powerfully resonant of their subjects.

The film does generate a sense of the mother’s milieu, lower-middle class, but at the same time takes in other classes and situations, both of the bourgeoisie and of the proletariat. As the Brochure adds,

references that transcend the personal.

The photographs are well chosen, Sander has become a famous artist in more recent years. The sixty years of the film, [presented in 62 minutes], contain some of the most dramatic and tragic events in modern German history. And the series develops a real sense of the times and the people involved.


Jutta Brückner was there to introduce her film. Her project was decided before she was able to develop an effective form. There were only limited photographs from her family. The discovery of Sander’s photographs enabled her to broaden the narrative into the social and historical area. She remarked that when she made the film Sander was not well known. This meant that she was able to acquire access to the photographs at a low rate. She reckoned now that he has an international reputation the photographs would be beyond any likely budget.

The film was shot on 16mm and in black and white academy. So there is little reframing of the photographs. We watched a digital version restored by Deutsche Kinemathek in 2016. Like most of the digital versions at the Festival it looked fine. Note, IMDB has another German film with the same title from 1976, but with little detail.

The main feature was preceded by a 16mm black and white short documentary, The Father (Der Fater, 1986). [The change in formats was something that the projection team handled with aplomb]. This was a compilation of films shot by the director’s father who was doctor based in Shanghai in the 1930s. The home movies also included Egypt and India. The film was intercut by colour film shot by the director, Christine Noll Brinkmann. I did not find these particularly revealing though the aim was,

to make the father’s footage speak, so it would reveal its meaning to the daughter


But the footage of Europeans benefiting from a colonial situation was interesting.

Island of the Hungry Ghosts (Germany-UK-Australia 2018)

islandofthehungryghosts

Poh Lin Lee and daughter

Australian filmmaker Gabrielle Brady tells an important tale about the 21st century concentration camps where asylum seekers are processed in ways that dehumanise and are intended to act as a deterrent against others following. Her subject is Australia’s Christmas Island prison which represents the toxic attitude toward migration that many countries have; particularly Britain.

However she constructs the condemnation through metaphors: the millions of migrant crabs on the island and the Chinese folk who take part in ceremonies to guide the ‘hungry ghosts’ – that is those who weren’t buried properly – to peace. The amazing crabs, who migrate to the ocean to lay their eggs, are treated better by the authorities than people trying to find sanctuary in Australia. A ‘lollipop lady’ stops traffic to help them cross; roads are closed; sweepers escort cars to avoid squashing the crustaceans. In the other metaphor, Chinese residents create bonfires and chant to help the ghosts on their way; the asylum seekers are therefore characterised as hungry (for safety) ghosts (as they have no agency as they wait to be processed).

The key migrant narrative is shown through therapist sessions: Peter Bradshaw states these are recreations and as we hear a radio news broadcast stating that anyone talking to the media about detention centres could face up to two years imprisonment that is hardly surprising. It’s a symptom of growing authoritarianism in government that such draconian laws are passed; in the UK non disclosure agreements are increasingly used to avoid embarrassing information being given to the media. It’s a failure of democracy that those in power cannot be held to account.

Unsurprisingly the sessions are harrowing as Poh Lin Lee (playing herself) tries to help the traumatised migrants. Such therapy can only work long term and she is constantly frustrated by the authorities who refuse to give her information about the detainees and ignore her recommendations. She’s living on the island with her family and time is taken to observe their everyday life; I’m not sure what this adds to the documentary.

Brady is to be commended for the film but outrage is probably a more pertinent emotion and although it will manifest itself in audiences with compassion the film cannot work as a call to arms against the disgusting treatment of the most vulnerable in the world. I would have preferred more direct information but that is a light criticism as Brady has made the film she wants which is certainly worth seeing. MUBI.

The Salt of the Earth (France-Brazil-Italy 2014)

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Breathtaking destruction

New German Cinema director Wim Wenders made his first feature documentary, Lightning Over Water (Sweden-France-Germany, 1980), about American film director Nick Ray. Although he still makes fiction films, documentaries have been increasingly important to Wenders and this one, co-directed with Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, won ‘Un Certain Regard – Special Jury Prize’ at Cannes. His co-director is the son of the subject of the documentary, the extraordinary photographer Sebastião Salgado.

Although Wenders occasionally speaks on the voiceover, and appears in a few ‘reverse shots’ of him filming Salgado, he lets chronology structure this ‘sort of’ biopic. That works perfectly because it brings us full circle back to Brazil, which Salgado had to leave because of the fascist government in the 1960s, to see the results of the ecological project Salgado had instituted at the suggestion of his wife, Lélia. Throughout we get to see the extraordinary images that constitute the photographer’s career, often from extreme places such as the gold mines of Brazil and the genocide in Rwanda. It is after the latter that Salgado loses his will to document the evils of men and turned toward the environment; he has lived an incredible life.

What’s missing from the documentary is the cost to his family. He’d spend months, maybe years, away from his wife and children; they seemed to have stoically accepted his absence though the cost to them must have been high. I would also be fascinated to hear about Salgado’s technique in creating his incredible shots. All we get is a brief interjection about how it is important to frame shots against the background.

It’s a small quibble as that was clearly not the sort of documentary that Wenders and Salgado (jr.) wanted to make. Similarly the economics of the gold mine are barely explained and so reveals the limitations of photojournalism. If all we get is the image then we will not understand the world better. Particularly when they are as great as Salgado’s as the ‘breathtaking moment’ works against intellectual consideration of the social context. This isn’t to criticise Salgado and, as we see at the end of the film, he is trying and succeeding in ‘doing good’. The fact that his books cost an ‘arm and a leg’ further restrict his impact: a coffee table book for the bourgeoisie to show how much they care is not going to change the world.

Enough grousing, this is a brilliant film.

An earlier post on this film is here.