Category: Documentary

Presenting Amy (UK 2015)

amy

There are several ways to approach Amy, already one of the biggest documentary box-office hits of recent years. One would be in terms of its fidelity/revelation for Amy Winehouse fans. I wasn’t one of those (although I admired the voice and followed some of the news stories) so I won’t go there. Instead, I think it’s worth considering a comparison with Senna (UK 2010), Asif Kapadia’s earlier documentary about the Brazilian Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna.

Senna was in several ways a breakthrough cinema documentary, not only in terms of documentary practice, but also in the way that it was distributed – becoming one of the first cinema films to benefit from the changes in distribution brought about by digital projection. These enabled the film to ‘grow’ an audience over several weeks in the UK and to eventually attract filmgoers who were not necessarily fans of Ayrton Senna or motor racing. (The film eventually earned US$5 million in the UK and over US$5 million overseas.) It could be argued that one of the major reasons why this wider audience enjoyed the film was because the story was heavily ‘narrativised’. Asif Kapadia chose to present archive footage in such a way that the edited material ‘told’ the story of what happened to Senna without a controlling voiceover. Different voices on the soundtrack were used to overlay the footage (and again, with just a few exceptions, these were comments from the archive). The overall effect was to create something with a narrative structure similar to the fictional ‘sports biopic’ with recognisable conventional elements. Thus Ayrton Senna emerges as an attractive young man as well as an exciting and accomplished racing driver. As the hero he battles against a clearly defined rival in the form of Alain Prost as well as against the institutional elements of the sport, especially in battles about the safety of the sport. The story has a tragic ending that becomes what would be the ‘final act’ of a conventional biopic.

Amy was presented as a project to Asif Kapadia because of his success with Senna and the similarities between the story of the sports star and the music star. On Senna, Kapadia had access to all the material owned by FOM (Formula 1 Management) the single body in control of the sport. For Amy he had access to all the music produced under contract by Amy Winehouse for Universal Music. These were massive advantages since negotiating rights for such material would prove both expensive and time-consuming for other producers. My interest in this comparison is first to work through the similarities and differences between the two projects and then to try to assess what emerges from this analysis and what it ‘opens up’ in terms of ‘reading’ Amy. I’m not going to be able to complete the work until a DVD of Amy becomes available since close readings of sequences are going to be required. I’ve already worked on Senna for earlier student events and the notes for teachers from those events are available for Free Download here. At the moment I’ll restrict myself to a few first observations about the similarities and differences between the two films and their production contexts.

The biopic

Both films are, at least potentially, linked via narrative structure to the biopic. Senna is clearly modelled on the sports biopic. Formula 1 is an interesting sport because it is now truly ‘international’ as well as being part of wider ‘motor sport’. This makes it attractive as the basis for an international commercial film. It also has the benefit of its presentation via technology – i.e. it is possible present credible fictional ‘sporting footage’. Football, despite being the world’s most watched sport has so far failed to produce major films partly because it isn’t possible to find actors who can play the game to the standard of internationally known star players. By contrast Rush (2013) made US$90 million worldwide as a drama based on the Formula 1 battle between James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) in the 1970s. Certain sports have generated celebrity figures and are associated with glamour. Arguably football is now approaching the point where star players are international celebrities, including in North America. Though it isn’t a biopic, Bend It Like Beckham (UK-Germany 2002) demonstrated that a small independent film could travel internationally, partly because of its association with a celebrity figure (who isn’t a character in the film). Perhaps the most frequently used material for fictional sports films comes from boxing. Boxing involves violence, ‘body spectacle’ and connections to both celebrity culture (boxers are often the best paid international sports stars) and , at least historically, elements of organised crime. Boxing also fosters the idea of fallen men ‘rising up’.

The sports biopic has much in common with the music biopic in terms of conventions. Both are likely to be biopics that focus more upon the teen to thirties period when young stars develop and reach the ‘top of their game’. Both deal with early struggles to develop talent and feature ‘breakthrough’ moments. Often young stars will have personal battles with competitors, struggles with their personal lives, conflicts with managers and official/institutional bodies and struggles with the impact of fandom. More recently, celebrity culture has become a major issue for both sports and music stars. The narrative events in both can be categorised as ‘private’ and ‘public’ – the public events have already been presented to TV audiences and mediated many times. Even those which are now mainly historical can be ‘known’ to modern audiences via DVDs etc.

However, music biopics are usually more popular than sports biopics. There are many more produced and some (e.g. Walk the Line, 2005) have been major international box office successes as well as awards winners. Audiences are going to be more familiar with the conventions and the stories themselves are often more accessible (we know the songs, we feel closer to the music industry than to the official bodies of sporting organisations). If Kapadia consciously constructed Senna as a sports biopic, did he do the same with Amy and the music bio? My initial reaction is that if he did, he left out many of the expected elements.

Amy and genre conventions

Perhaps because I didn’t follow the ‘real’ story as a fan, I’m more conscious of the ‘gaps’ in Amy as a music biopic. For example, the industrial aspect of the business is only lightly sketched in. Universal is the biggest of the music majors and a global corporation (owned by Vivendi in France). Amy Winehouse was signed to Island, a Universal label in the UK and to a different Universal label, Revolution, in the US. The label bosses do figure briefly in the film but the ‘signing process’, a generic feature of the music biopic, isn’t covered – nor is the success of the albums Frank (2003) or Back to Black (2006) presented in visual terms. Maybe this is a reflection on current music industry practices (i.e. chart positions, sales etc. are less important moments)? But it does seem to me that the narrative is more focused on the final act and hasn’t space for these conventional sequences. One consequence of this is that the film tends to lose any sense of the economics that underpin the singer’s lifestyle. We know she has become rich, but what does this mean? She seems to be in rehab or spending six months in St. Lucia – how does this relate to pressure re contracts to produce records and to make live appearances? I was quite confused by the events leading up to the gig in Belgrade – did she want to do gigs like this or was she forced to?

A young Amy Winehouse (right) plays guitar in one of the 'found footage' clips

A young Amy Winehouse (right) plays guitar in one of the ‘found footage’ clips

Amy is about relationships – with her parents, her two best friends and the various music industry personnel and fans that she meets, some of whom become friends and one of whom becomes her husband. However, these relationships seem to be mainly presented as part of the tragic personal narrative rather than equally representing the personal and the professional development of Amy Winehouse as a singer, composer and performer. We don’t get enough of the changes in Winehouse’s musical tastes and the potential conflicts this might create for her band members or for the record label bosses. Friends more au fait with her music have also suggested that the film gives us only a few of the songs/performances that made her a star – which seems surprising given that the rights were presumably available via Universal. I can only conclude that Kapadia chose to focus on the personal and the celebrity status rather than the early music career as this would attract a wider audience. Personally, the best parts of the film for me included the early footage of a young woman playing guitar and singing in the manner of her jazz heroes, and her recording of a duet with Tony Bennett (it was Bennett who prompted me to take Amy Winehouse seriously when he was interviewed at the time of that recording session).

Amy and the aesthetics of documentary practice

I really do need the DVD for this. What interests me, in comparison with Senna, is the extent to which Kapadia was limited by the found footage available. On Senna he found footage that was in one sense ‘neutral’ (i.e. not focused directly on Ayrton Senna) and which he was able to manipulate and edit in different ways to suggest meanings. Sometimes he discovered footage that offered better images than he might have conceived himself. At other times he found footage that worked purely on a visual level through editing and processing. By contrast, my first impression was that the footage in Amy seems less malleable, partly because much of it is more intimate and closely focused on Amy Winehouse herself. I might be completely wrong (which is why I need a DVD for confirmation) but much of the footage seems to have been shot on phones or video cameras and the best quality footage comes from TV shows. I suppose motor racing is inherently more ‘cinematic’. In Amy, the only footage taken by Kapadia’s cameras seems to comprise a number of aerial shots of London, used partly to show the singer’s homes and partly as ‘punctuation’ between the sequences of found footage. I’m not sure if this worked.

The narrative

What does this add up to? I’m moving towards arguing that Amy doesn’t work as well as Senna in informing us about the music business or in telling us Amy Winehouse’s story as a music star. On the other hand it may work just as well, if not better, as an affective story about the tragedy of Amy Winehouse’s personal life – and that may explain why it will be more successful commercially. The fact that her father has objected to the film (he figures prominently in the footage as one of the potential villains of the narrative but her mother is less visible) may well have added to audience interest. A fiercely critical view of Kapadia’s approach can be found in a Guardian blog post by Ruby Lott-Lavigna:

. . . the film’s exploitative lens: a lens that lingers on intimate images of Winehouse gaunt and high, or on the shocking footage of her body being removed from her Camden home in a body bag. One that leers at her bulimia-wrecked form or even more questionably, uses paparazzi footage in the same breath as explaining how being hounded by the press drove her closer to breaking point. The documentary lacks a voice, supplementing this void with a tabloid-esque scrapbook timeline transposed to screen. Using personal footage and amateurishly inscribing her lyrics across the stage as she sings them, it is reminiscent of a fan-made YouTube video. The documentary seems to lack any moral control, instead stacking one image of a drunken Winehouse on top of another, gradually effacing its own credibility.

This is interesting in its assertion that what is seen by ‘the lens’ – i.e. the found footage that Kapadia has chosen – needs to be ‘explained’ or ‘anchored’ by a (presumably objective) narrator. It also implies that documentaries must embody a moral position instead of offering a narrative that audiences must read and make up their own minds about. I do agree about the lyrics though. Sometimes it was useful but having them for every song did get tedious.

For now I’m biding my time until I can analyse the film in detail before deciding where I stand. In the meantime what were your first impressions?

Here’s the US trailer:

Free Download: Teachers’ Notes on Senna (UK 2010) and Documentary Practice

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These notes act as an introduction to some of the interesting questions about the approach to a specific type of documentary by the British filmmaker Asif Kapadia. The same approach was adopted in Kapadia’s recent film Amy (UK 2015) telling the tragic story of Amy Whitehouse. A detailed post on Amy will follow shortly.

The approach discussed here involves creating a narrative entirely from archive or ‘found’ footage and complementary sound recording and photographs.

The notes were originally provided for study days for A Level Film and Media groups (16-19 year-old students) involving a full screening and an illustrated lecture on documentary practice. Some of the background material was jointly written with Nick Lacey. The notes include discussion questions and can be used in conjunction with the DVD of Senna.

Download:

Senna: Teacher Notes

¡Viva! Mexico #4: Seguir viviendo (Go On Living, Mexico 2014)

Jade, Martha and Kaleb

Jade, Martha and Kaleb

This unusual film was introduced by its writer-director Alejandra Sánchez who joined ¡Viva! programmer Rachel Hayward for a Q&A after the screening. Ms Sanchez is a documentary filmmaker who has here moved into ‘documentary drama’. In 2006 she made a documentary about the violent attacks on women in the city of Juárez near the US border. She made contact with a woman whose daughter had been killed in Juárez in one of these attacks and who was now looking after her two small grandchildren. Ten years after her daughter’s death this woman was herself attacked and shot several times outside her house. Somehow she survived the shooting (which Alejandra Sanchez argued was prompted by her work as an activist in the campaign about violence directed towards women). The director then decided to dramatise the story of the two children, one of whom witnessed the shooting. She wrote a script and then decided to cast the real teenagers to play themselves. As well as this element, she also used photographs and ‘home movie footage’ of the children and their mother as part of her film.

In the film the two children, Jade and Kaleb, now teenagers, are visited in the hospital where their grandmother is in a coma by a journalist, Martha, who has been summoned by the family’s lawyer, David. Martha (Nora Huerto) is asked to take the teenagers on a trip, away from possible danger, with the hope that they will be able to meet up with their grandmother in Mexico City when she has recovered and go with her to a safe house in Canada.

Seguir viviendo thus turns into a road movie. The brother and sister are understandably traumatised by this second attack. Kaleb never speaks (a device suggested by the director) but his sister eventually comes round. Later it is revealed that Martha has lost her small son in a car accident and one stop on the road trip is at the bar owned by her former lover, the dead boy’s father. There isn’t a great deal of plot but the road trip includes some of the familiar generic moments, including a drive down the coast and various overnight stays in motels and at least one village house. The film has an ‘open’ ending with a song and an animated sequence – which I certainly wasn’t expecting. During the Q&A Alejandra told us that she chose the ending against advice because she preferred it to the more realistic end point of the airport where the teenagers would board a plane to take them to the safe house.

Alejandra Sanchez answers a question from Rachel Hayward.

Alejandra Sanchez answers a question from Rachel Hayward.

Why was the children’s mother murdered in the first place? Why are women being attacked in Cuidad Juárez? These are the questions that several people in the audience wanted answers for. Alejandra was not able to answer such questions directly (it may have been simply a translation problem). She said that the attacks and killings had been going on for more than 20 years and that you really had to live in Mexico to appreciate what this meant. I took her statements to imply that the children’s mother was killed almost as part of the overall violence of the city rather than for something that she did and that the grandmother was attacked because she was an activist campaigning for better police and judicial action against the killers. This discussion did, of course, raise the spectre of violence associated with Mexico’s drug gangs, especially in the areas near the US border. A Guatemalan filmmaker in the audience said that this violence should be discussed and audiences needed to be educated about it and why it has happened – otherwise the representation of Central American societies remains simply barbaric for outsiders. This is something people feel strongly about and indeed it does need discussion. Both Rachel Hayward and Andy Willis asked questions which tried to focus on how Alejandra felt in dealing with such highly emotional (and possibly personally dangerous) filmmaking. There are a couple of scenes where the characters think they might be being followed and Alejandra admitted that the paranoia was ‘real’ for herself and the teenagers and her crew.

This an emotional and at times very moving film and Alejandra Sanchez is a brave filmmaker who deserves support. The film is technically well-made but it is quite short (81 mins) for a feature and I did feel that the final section lacked something. I fear that the film will mainly be seen at specialist film festivals but I hope it does find a wider audience and that it encourages other filmmakers to be equally brave and authorities to initiate action against the violence and towards support for the victims.

Films by Allan Sekula, Noël Burch & Peter Hutton.

forgotten-space

This was a Pavilion event presented at the Hyde Park Picture House. Pavilion events are always interesting and offer disitntive areas of contemporary and recent cinema and culture. This was the case on this occasion with a feature length documentary and two experimental films addressing

The poetic potential of river and sea…

The documentary by Peter Sekula was The Forgotten Space (2010). This was lengthy and complex film and I feel the need to give it lengthy consideration: so these are brief introductory comments to which I will probably return. We had introductions from Will Rose and Gill Parks. Sekula worked at the University of California and was interested in both photography and film. He was described as a critical realist, a term which sets him off from those who saw photography as a ‘high art’ exercise. His collaborator Noël Burch is better known for his critical writings on film, but he has also been involved in other films, usually with an eye to avant garde techniques.

The film

‘approaches the sea as a crucial site within capitalism’s global supply chain.

And the central motif is the container ship. We see numerous examples of this technology at seas and at various sites of arrival/departure in North America, Europe and South East Asia. There is a major port facility alongside Los Angeles: Antwerp is a major port for the European Community. And Hong Kong, both under British colonialism and now as part of modern China, is another key site.

The film looks at the development of the technology and it impact on the global organisation of capitalist production and distribution. It pays equal attention to impact on the working classes and the value of their labour power. And there is attention to the impact on communities both immediately affected by this technology and the wider cultural impacts. We hear interviews with representatives of the industries, of the workers, of the communities which home them, and analysts who study the industries.

The film develops an accumulating understanding of the immediate and more distant effects. The plotting constantly returns to this central technology, but this intercuts with particular examples: including the displacements of people in Europe, in California and across the Asian mainland and archipelagos.

In line with Sekula’s stance on ‘style’ for much of the time the images and sounds present their subjects and objects without drawing attention to themselves. But at key moments rather more unconventional techniques draw attention to the texture of the film and to the contradictions therein. Thus at one point studying effects around Antwerp the commentary offers the ‘discussions’ surrounding the displacement of a town and community, whilst an edit brings visual attention to police in riot gear. At another point as the camera pans across a landscape to the sounds of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, both sound and image are disrupted by a passing of a speeding train. At various points there are also shots in slow motion, speeded up shots, jump cuts and overlapping sound. All these techniques reminded me of some used in earlier films involving Noël Birch. And at another point shots of a line of trains are reminiscent of the films of James Benning: but whilst a boy’s voice counts the trains a series of wipes bring an effective disruption.

At other points there are some visually impressive camera shots: one a series of images taken across modern Hong Kong, using the reflections of doors and windows. The other, close to the end, offers a series of vistas around a ‘golden’ Guggenheim Museum erected in Bilbao.

Whist the films uses a range of locations and [presumably] filming it also uses extracts from recognisable features. Two of these, Michael Powell’s Red Ensign and Robert Aldrich Kiss Me deadly are cropped to fit the 1.85:1 frame. However, a separate extract from Joseph von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York is in the correct 1.33:1. This is odd and rather unsatisfactory.

As you might guess from some of the terms above, the film is informed by the seminal analysis of capitalism by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, though neither gets an actual reference. There are however a number of phrases which are immediately familiar: the container

‘contains the seeds of its own destruction.’

This is very effective but the analysis does not use the full range of Marxist concepts. Two important points are not presented: the actual nature of the value of labour power and the declining rate of profits. Of course, the analysis of Marx and Engels is long and complex. Even so, both of these points are essential to an understanding of the recent global crisis, which the film does reference.

The programme then screened two films by Peter Hutton, a cinematic artist working in North America. These are some way from the form of Sekula’s film. Shot and presented on 16 mm the films offer a series of shots and sequences of the Hudson River in New York State. These fit into a recognisable pattern of aesthetically orientated and independent filmmaking. At various points there are parallels with the work of Stan Brakhage and James Benning. However, Hutton has his own preferred tropes and thematic interests. The shots are discrete and at some points similar to the tropes of film roman. At times the shots are ethereal and beautiful but one also senses a social comment beyond the objects in some of the placements and sequencing.

Study of a River (1997) is in black and white and runs for 16 minutes. Time and Tide (2000) is in both black and white and colour, and runs for 35 minutes. The latter film has a series of shots through the portholes of a barge. These are especially evocative. Recurring shots of a particular scape or building, like a power station, suggest further reflection.

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Time and Tide also uses film shot by the veteran pioneer cinematographer Billy Bitzer in 1903. I had, happily, seen this footage before at Il Cinema Ritrovato. Bitzer famously was cinematographer for D. W. Griffith, both on the early one and two-reelers at Biograph and the later feature films. I was intrigued when a shot followed of ice flows in the Hudson River: was this a subtle reference to Way Down East (1920)?

The whole programme provided both a challenging and thought provoking essay and a more aesthetic, almost dreamy film reverie. However, Hutton is not merely the aesthete criticised by Sekula. All three films provided both stimulation and cinematic pleasures.