Category: Documentary

The Confession: Living the War on Terror (UK 2016)

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I saw this film at the Hyde Park Picture House: there was also a Q&A with the subject of the film, Moazzam Begg, and the director, Ashish Ghadiali, following the screening. The film centres on a long interview with Moazzam Begg as he recounts his experiences: radicalised by events in Bosnia and Chechnya in the 1990s: harassed by the British Security Services and a move to Afghanistan; with the US invasion he moved with his family to Pakistan; and then the kidnapping and imprisonment at the US air base at Bagram and whisked away (illegally) to the Guantánamo base in occupied Cuba. There he was interrogated and tortured in the company of hundreds of other illegally detained men under the euphemism of ”enemy combatants’. Finally released Moazzam Begg has become an active Moslem and an activist in anti-imperial struggles. So predictably the UK government attempted to charge him again in 2014: and as with much on the so-called ‘war on terror’ pursued this incompetently.

The interview is absorbing and Begg is fluent and clearly has considered his experiences carefully and intelligently. The interview is well filmed by Director of Cinematography Keidrych Wasley: for much of the time we watch Begg and his reflection in a darkened mirror, occasionally changing to a large close-up for emphasis. The interview is supplemented by found footage, some of related people and places, some other interviews and much television and film footage of the events in which Begg has been involved. Some of the media footage is well judged, illuminating the topic or being illuminated by Begg’s voice over. Some of it feels like the visual padding that is so common on television news. There were a couple of over familiar sequences of Bush and Blair where I almost groaned out loud.

All of this is edited together in a predominately linear narrative which develops its themes and commentary into a coherent overview. The Film Editors Nsé Asuquo and Simon Barker have done this in excellent fashion. The sound is effective and there is frequent commentative music by Nitin Sawhney, well composed but at times a little intrusive.

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The Q&A that followed was interesting, especially the added comments by Moazzam Begg. And Ashish Ghadiali added some background to the film. But we then had several questions taken together before any response, which did not make for clarity. I had a couple of queries which I did not get an opportunity to put to the filmmaker. One was concerning the opening titles which included one that noted that Moazzam Begg and been imprisoned in ‘Pakistan, Afghanistan, Cuba and Britain’. This is not really correct and is misleading: The Guantánamo Detention Centre is in a part of Cuba occupied by the USA. A point that one would hope an independent film offered clarity on. Of more concern  to me was the use in the film of two unidentified interviewers, one heard briefly with Moazzam Begg’s father, but the other (or perhaps the same person) on several occasions with Begg himself. We do not actually see him but it did not seem to be the director in this role. But it was clear that the style of questioning determined to a great degree how Begg presented his experiences and therefore on the form of the film itself. What we saw and heard was rather similar to the approach one finds on the BBC (who were part of the production), requiring Begg and his supporters to justify their position. It should be obvious especially with the critical volume from bourgeois critics, that the justification lies entirely with the US and UK Governments and security services.

This produced a strong reservation for me about how effective this approach is. I certainly think the film and Moazzam Begg deserve full attention. But it needs to be supplemented by a more radical approach. I thought that The Road to Guantánamo (2006) had that. It seems that the screenings of Confession with an accompanying Q&A have finished but the film is still screening nationwide.

Hard Stop (UK-US 2015)

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This is an independent documentary that explores, to a degree indirectly, the events and  responses that followed from the death of Mark Duggan. He was shot by a Metropolitan police squad in Tottenham in 2011, and the circumstances surrounding his death offer conflicting stories. What is undeniable is that a wave of unrest and rioting occurred after the shooting , first in London and then in other towns round the country. This re-ignited a debate that has raged on and off for years about social violence and state violence.

The film does not offer the apparently dispassionate account common in documentaries but explores the events and situations through personal stories. The key characters are two friends of Mark Duggan, Kurtis and Marcus. We learn both their stories, and piece by piece, some of the story of Mark Duggan. Kurtis is married with a child and he has struggled to find work to support them. He ‘got on his bike’ and worked in Norwich for a while but the disruption damaged his home life. Now he works back in the area. Marcus was sentenced to prison following the riots. Since the death of his friend he has embraced Islam and since leaving prison he has a mentor for young black boys.

The story of the events and subsequent investigations of Mark Duggan’s death unfold alongside these two other stories. So it was only late in the film, when the delayed inquest in to Duggan’s death took place, that I found out to what the title refers: a phrase used by the Metropolitan Police to describe stopping criminals with extreme violence. The Inquest resulted in a contradictory finding: the contradiction between law and justice. We see that the family, including Mark’s two surviving friends, continue to struggle for justice.

The film was directed by George Amponsah who also shot some of the film. There is no script credit, so I assume the film was structured around the varied film footage, both archive and found footage and film shot round Tottenham, and edited together. This increases the very personal and subjective feel of the film. The differing footage is well edited into a 85 minute film in colour and standard widescreen. There was one odd ratio among the footage, which I did not recognise, which produced a slight black bar on the top of the screen at some points.

The overall effect of the film is powerful. The film’s point-of-view eschews comment using the voices of family, friends and local residents, but this creates a gradually growing volume of discrepancies and disquiet. Some of the participants do voice strong feelings. These include commenting  on earlier events, the death of Cynthia Jarrett, the Broadwater Farm rebellion/riot and the death of PC Blakelock in 1985. Here the film draws connections between long running social problems, deprivation and racism in this area of London.

The film opens with a quotation from Martin Luther King,

“A riot is the language of the unheard.”

a point eloquently re-enforced by the film. The well judged testimonies and accounts by Kurtis and Marcus speak volumes about the lives and situations of young black men in London. The film then ends with a quotation from Leo Tolstoy,

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

This struck me as a far less appropriate comment. In fact, we see Kurtis and Marcus changing in the course of the film, and it is clear that other people we  see do as well. But whilst they change they also remember the past. One recurring scene is the annual anniversary gathering at the grave of Mark Duggan. Tolstoy’s quotation would have been more relevant if he had referred to institutions.

The film is circulated by Metrodome Distribution and both the Picturehouse and Curzon chains are offering screenings. I saw the film at the Hyde Park Picture House regular Tuesday slot. At the moment the only other screening in West Yorkshire appears to be that at the Hebden Bridge Picture House on Monday evening August 15th.

Yorimatã (Brazil 2014)

Luli (left and Lucina in the 1970s

Luli (left) and Lucina in the 1970s

In her second introduction of the Brazilian Weekender at HOME, Stephanie Dennison told us that music documentaries have been very popular in Brazil for the last few years and that Yorimatã was both critically and commercially successful in cinemas in 2015. She suggested that this was both surprising and encouraging since many audiences didn’t know about the two main subjects of the film – women who challenged conventional music industry ideas in the 1970s. This was my third documentary of the week and my second music documentary. Yorimatã has some things in common with Bayou Maharajah, but also several differences.

I don’t think I’ve seen a music documentary before in which all of the performers were unknown to me (apart from Gilberto Gil who makes a brief appearance). Coupled with my limited knowledge of Brazilian music styles this meant I found it a little difficult to discern the chronology of events. (The narrative is non-linear.) Other than that, however, I was captivated by the music and personalities of the two women who appear to have used just their first names – Luhli and Lucina – throughout their long careers. Here is the official trailer for Yorimatã which explains the title and introduces the story and the music. (The official website in Portuguese has some other interesting material, including the images used here.)

Luhli (sometimes Luli) and Lucina both began performing and recording in the 1960s as solo artists and with other performers. They got together in the early 1970s, forming a musical partnership that was exciting for them and for audiences and which lasted more than twenty years. They decided to become ‘independents’ and move away from the global music labels such as Philips and Polygram and took themselves off to live in the country – following, but in their own way, the similar trends in Europe and North America. The ‘music majors’ have always been global but, unlike Hollywood, they tend to put more effort into developing local ‘artists and repertoire’. They do so in conventional ways so Luhli and Lucina were seen as ‘radicals’. The living arrangements they made were also radical and ‘anti-conservative’ as they set up a family unit with photographer Luiz Fernando Borges da Fonseca. This three-way relationship was captured by Luiz and his archive of footage formed the basis for director Rafael Saar’s documentary (Saar is something of a specialist in music films). These archive clips are mixed with interviews, footage of the two women today, including recent performances with other musicians and archive clips of their earlier performances together.

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The family in retreat

The 1970s performances and the home movie footage of life in their rural retreat provide perhaps the most appealing sequences – enhanced by the grainy and colour-degraded qualities of the blown-up images. I was trying to think of what the British or American equivalents might be but I realised that the social and political differences between Brazil and the ‘North’ would have been an important factor. These images from Brazil seem at the same time more ‘homely’ and frankly more fun than 1970s hippy communes as depicted in Anglo-American music culture – but also more of a challenge to society since Brazil was under an authoritarian military dictatorship which arrested and exiled some musicians whose politics were deemed unacceptable.

In musical terms, however, it’s interesting that Luhli and Lucina made familiar moves towards musical forms that were more ‘roots’ orientated and sometimes more ‘spiritual’. But they also went through a phase of electrifying their music and becoming more rock-orientated. At this point I thought about Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention and wondered how things might have been different if Sandy had had a close female collaborator and soulmate. The music of Luhli and Lucina remained in a Brazilian context and for musicologists there are references to samba and the ways in which African music and other foreign forms have been developed in a Brazilian context. The most surprising aspect of the women’s performances (apart from the appearance of the 10-string Brazilian guitar – viola caipira?) is their use of African drums (see the trailer above). We see them working to make these drums and the film begins and ends with a drumming performance.

I’m not sure if this film will get distribution outside Brazil (it did appear at Toronto) but I do hope somebody tries to make it happen. The sounds and images have stayed with me and audiences should get a lot from it. Some will enjoy the women’s strength and challenge to the social order. Others will enjoy the music. Everybody will get something from it. I’m very pleased to have had the opportunity to see it.

A more recent image of of Lucina (left) and Luhli

A more recent image of Lucina (left) and Luhli

Jonas e seu circo sem lona (Jonas and the Backyard Circus, Brazil 2015)

Jonas drumming up an audience for his backyard circus.

Jonas drumming up an audience for his backyard circus.

This film in HOME’s Brazilian Weekender turned out to be a documentary about what Stephanie Dennison in her Introduction referred to as a ‘small subject’. Professor Dennison leads on Brazilian film at the University of Leeds and the Weekender is a joint Leeds/Manchester University initiative with HOME’s festivals team. She suggested to us that often the Brazilian films that are seen abroad are about ‘big’ subjects or they are ‘exotic’ and strange/wonderful. She went on to suggest that with the swing to the right in Brazil what she thought was interesting about this film (apart from the technical skill on display) was its concern with public education – something that was an important part of the Workers’ Party agenda. Certainly the last two Brazilian films I’ve seen were Second Mother (Brazil 2015) and The Violin Teacher (Brazil 2015), both concerned with issues related to education.

The ‘striking technical skill’ here belongs to first-time documentary feature filmmaker Paula Gomes. She crafts an 83 minute film that takes its simple premise and presents it as accessibly as possible while maintaining a reasonable observational distance from its subject – though this is breached three times, but each time in an interesting and revealing way. The ‘Jonas’ of the title is a 13 year-old boy in the North-Eastern region of Bahia. He lives with his mother and grandmother, both of whom have had experience in the circus. If we are told about a father figure, I missed it in the subtitles. However, we do learn that Jonas has an uncle who is still operating a circus in the region.

The ‘plot’ of the documentary sees Jonas using a holiday period to devise a circus performance with his friends in his mother’s backyard. His mother tolerates this (and his grandma encourages it) but the mother’s concern is to see Jonas succeed at school. Jonas has the skills and the commitment to ‘make a go’ of the circus but his friends in the neighbourhood don’t share his need to be a performer and although they ‘muck in’ and enjoy themselves, they gradually drift away. Meanwhile, Jonas is only a peripheral figure at school – knuckling down only when the camera is on him. The filmmaker appears briefly in one scene reflected in the mirror in Jonas’ bedroom when his mother tries to wake him to send him to school. More importantly perhaps the director is addressed in one scene by the headteacher who tells her that her film is a bad idea since it gets in the way of Jonas and his schoolwork. This seems a little unfair, but it’s good to see some concern over the boy’s education. The closing credits include another line of dialogue directed to the filmmaker but I won’t spoil what is a pretty good joke.

For me, the technical and artistic success of the film is based on an ‘intimate’ camera style which brings us into the world of Jonas and his friends and family without ever being ‘exploitative’. There are many close-ups, mainly of faces. It is indeed an impressive first feature. Jonas is an engaging young man and his mother and grandmother are equally interesting characters. The classroom scenes suggest that working class education in Brazil is a real issue and I’m reminded that one of the great education thinkers was Paulo Friere who came from Recife in the neighbouring region of Pernambuco. The turn to the right in Brazilian politics is bad news for the working class.