Category: Documentary

A German Youth (Une jeunesse allemande, France-Switzerland-Germany 2015)


This is a fascinating documentary in the Cinema Versa section [Underground Voices] at the Leeds International Film Festival. Essentially the film follows the rise and fall of the Red Army Faction or Baader Meinhof Group in Germany through the 1960s and 1970s. However, it is not a narrative in the sense of the earlier fictional treatment The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008). This is an exploration of a time, a place and a movement – providing an assemblage of film extracts, some records of the time, some by the members of the movement and some by their opponents, the West German State and media.

There are films by Ulricke Meinhof made for German television, there are the films of Holger Meins and young filmmakers at the Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin: we see at one point Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Germany in Autumn / Deutschland im Herbst (1978, a very fine treatment). We also see media coverage from German television and material from the Springer publication empire.

Jean-Gabriel Périot, the writer and director, explained his approach in the Festival catalogue.

“To be truly objective, one must truly examine and question the motivations and thought processes of the so-called wrongdoers as well. This raises unresovable and even unbearable questions. While considering these ideas as human beings neither rewrites history, nor excuses the crimes committed, it does open a door to a more complete discussion about the nature of the acts and our own humanity, albeit the gloomiest part.”

I would question the ‘truly objective’, and I do not think that the film achieves all of Periot’s aims. However, it does revisit the now notorious movement and period with an interesting eye. There is familiar material but also film extracts I have not seen in the UK before. The heady days when the group developed is well captured. At one point some official comments that the Film School aimed to bring technically skilled entrants to the industry and they actually got ‘revolutionary wrongdoers’.

The film is less successful with the stance of state and media: these are all official or public presentations. So the sense of the interests that drove these responses is not clear.

But the film holds ones interest and offers a compelling portrait of the characters and events. It is also a pleasure to see a film that treats archive footage with respect, much of the film is in plain black and white and academy ratio. It eschews a commentary letting the protagonists speak for themselves. There are several powerful sequences with a blank screen as we hear the recorded voices of group members: though in the UK we do have the English subtitles.

The film is re-screening on Tuesday November 17th at 2 p.m. You can check out more background in the Hollywood Reporter; and you can get a taste of the content with the IMDB censor’s comments: this includes the following not objective appraisal:

 “In view of the documentary’s depictions and exploration of the leftist movements’ hostile actions to undermine the authority of Germany’s democratically elected government, this film would be recommended to persons aged 21 and above (in Germany and in other countries, with a warning), as a matured audience would be better able to understand the historical context and portrayal of the radicals in this situation.”

LFF 2015 #3: Something Better to Come (Denmark-Poland 2015)

Cooking on the dump . . .

Cooking on the dump . . .

I approached this screening with some trepidation. I’d chosen it because it fitted my schedule. I’m always slightly wary of documentaries and I’m not sure why. I rarely choose to see documentaries at my local cinemas but when I do get to see them I nearly always find them rewarding. This one certainly sounded grim and when I arrived at the ICA (which didn’t have seat reservations for this screening) I found myself sitting behind the tallest person in the cinema. With poor raking in the cinema this meant I had to lean sideways to read the subtitles. It wasn’t a good start but I needn’t have worried.

People live and work on or near to rubbish tips all over the world and I can think of both cinema documentaries and fiction films set in Brazil, Egypt and India in which potentially positive stories can be found about their lives. I wasn’t aware of the same scale of living with rubbish in Moscow. Rummaging about in Cairo or Mumbai sounds relatively attractive in comparison to surviving a Russian winter in a makeshift hut on a waste tip in the snow and slush. But apparently this is what hundreds, if not thousands, of people do every year. The film’s title comes from a quote from Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths (1902), a play depicting ‘Scenes From Russian Life’ amongst the poorest classes. Hanna Polak’s film focuses on one young woman and offers us glimpses of her life over a 14 year period, starting when she was 10.

Hanna Polak is a celebrated Polish documentarist and a humanitarian campaigner. Reading her biographical details, her list of films and awards over the last fifteen years and the range of her work with charitable organisations, I’m surprised (and perhaps shamed) that I haven’t come across her before. After the screening she gave a spirited account of how she made her latest film and used the opportunity to encourage us all to promote the film and the various campaigns around it. In short, Hanna Polak embodies what was once called ‘social documentary’. Her films are meant to not only show the world but definitely to change it. In Putin’s Russia that’s a tough call.

The genesis of the film was a project that Polak began in order to try to help street children in Moscow. It was they who introduced her to the communities on the dumps. For a long period she worked to help children with medical problems, getting them access to treatment. She always carried a camera and took both still photographs and film footage but most of the time she was too busy to do this systematically. It was only later that somebody suggested that she make a film and that she realised that she might be able to do more for the people on the dumps if a film showed what was happening to a much wider audience. The decision to make the young woman Yula, the central character in the story was in effect retrospective and we see glimpses of her as a child before we get more sustained coverage of incidents from her later teenage years onwards. Across the 14 years, Hanna Polak had other films to make as director, producer and cinematographer including Children of the Leningradsky (2004) about street children living around a Moscow railway station. She made other social documentaries as well as, presumably, jobs to simply pay the bills. She graduated from a cinematography school in Moscow so she had contacts in the city but she had to look elsewhere for funding. Something Better to Come is co-produced by Polish and Danish/Nordic public funding (an example of Scandinavian support for charitable/aid-related work?).

The difficulties of making this film – physical, organisational, personal etc. – mean that it doesn’t offer many ‘aesthetic pleasures’ but it packs a powerful punch as a social statement. Yula herself is a remarkable young woman and Hanna Polak amused us by revealing that the 23 year-old Yula is now living a carefully organised life in Moscow which allows the filmmaker limited interview time. “You get one hour, then I must do something else.” Yula’s family lost their original apartment in Moscow and ended up homeless and eventually on the dump. Years later, almost like a miracle in a fairy tale, the Moscow authorities discovered that the family had property rights that were still valid and Yula got an apartment. In the meantime her father, like many others, had died. Life on the dump is hard. A temporary shelter may need to be moved every few days as the only work available is searching through the new rubbish for recycleable material and it’s important to be close by. The trucks and bulldozers move the mountains of rubbish and the ‘recyclers’ are paid in vodka for what they find. Alcoholism sits along hyperthermia in winter and various diseases associated with dirty water and contaminated food as major killers. The recycling is an illegal operation controlled by gangsters. Hanna Polak faced dangers working with the people of the dump and finding money to complete her film was a problem. Now she spends her time trying to find ways to promote her film. If a screening happens near you, please go to see it and support her cause.

Hanna Polak’s website

Trailer for Something Better to Come:

Death of a Gentleman (UK 2015)

A scene from a 'proper' game of cricket – an image from the film's website:

A scene from a ‘proper’ game of cricket – an image from the film’s website:

This documentary is about corruption in the governing bodies that control international cricket. It was released in July – ironically in the middle of one of the most exciting of recent test series between England and Australia. Ostensibly setting out to discover if test cricket was dying in the face of commercial exploitation of shorter forms of the game, the filmmakers discovered a bigger story about corruption along the way.

The film’s release prompted several newspaper articles that explored the content of the film’s argument, three on the Guardian‘s website alone. Rather than repeat these, I intend to focus more on the film as an example of documentary. I should say first that I found the film fascinating and I learned a great deal. Having said that, I have some doubts about its status as a cinema documentary.

My first quibble is with the title. The suggestion is clear – cricket is a game meant to be played in a ‘gentlemanly’ manner. The implication is that this means that test cricket played in the correct manner is what cricket is all about. To emphasise this the film begins with a long shot of a rural cricket ground with a team in whites slowly taking to the field. BBC Test Match Special commentator Jonathan Agnew and West Indian legend Michael Holding (aka ‘Whispering Death’ and my hero) are wheeled out to explain this to camera. The film’s website even tells us that: “Death of a Gentleman is not a nostalgic look back at a sport that professionals played against amateurs while stopping for tea”. Fair enough, but the two main filmmakers don’t really see cricket in the way that I and many others do. Sam Collins is an Old Etonian and Jarrod Kimber describes himself as a “larrikin Aussie”. I’ve been watching/listening to cricket commentaries for a very long time and I know cricket is a game riven by conflicts between patrician public school boys (aka ‘gentlemen’), wealthy entrepreneurs and professional players and that for much of its history it has been cursed with colonial mentalities and the whiff of racist assumptions. The film rather glides over this and focuses on the dispute between the first two – between the public school ethos and the power of money. To be fair, however, the journalist Gideon Haigh’s contributions do slightly shift the argument.

As a film, I guess this is an ‘authored’ and therefore ‘performative’ documentary in the guise of investigative reporting. The two filmmakers are the central characters who travel between Australia, the UK, India, Sri Lanka and the UAE first looking for an answer to their question about test cricket and then investigating the murky goings-on of the International Cricket Council. As a ‘cinematic’ documentary there is not much to commend. The travels of our reporters are presented conventionally, intercut with talking heads of famous cricketers and administrators and archive footage of news reports and cricket coverage. Visually the film comes alive only when we get to India and the pair are suitably overawed by their experience of an IPL (Indian Premier League – 20:20) game. There wasn’t enough of this but I’m probably arguing for a different film that tries to understand cricket and its social history.

For film and media theorists/analysts what is most interesting about this film is that the filmmakers, perhaps accidentally, present us with a kind of perfect hero and two ‘over the top’ villains. I suspect a Hollywood scriptwriter might have struggled to invent these three. The ‘hero’ is Ed Cowan, a very personable young Australian who plays cricket in the ‘proper’ way and is consequently dropped by the Australian Cricket Authority because he doesn’t score fast enough for the one-day game. He is there at the beginning of the film to provide the story that illustrates why ‘faster’ versions of the game (20:20 and ODI) are damaging test cricket. He is soon overshadowed by the two super-villains – Giles Clarke, Chair of the (ECB) English Cricket Board and N Srinivasan President of the BCCI (Board of the Cricket Council of India) and later Chair of the ICC (International Cricket Council). I’m not going to go into the arguments presented in the film about how these two led international cricket down the ‘wrong road’ and in N. Srinivasan’s case became mired in corruption scandals. I’m more interested in how the institutional conventions of journalism and documentary practice ‘overdetermine’ the way in which the heroes and villains are represented, almost unconsciously. Collins and Kimber are shown arranging interviews with Clarke and Srinivasan. The two administrators, perhaps surprisingly, give interviews on camera and then act like politicians – spinning responses, refusing to answer certain questions etc. In the case of Srinivasan I’m not sure about how this has been edited but it gives the impression that Srinivasan is being deliberately evasive. He comes across, as the journalists say, as ‘inscrutable’. Clarke on the other hand doesn’t seem to care about being the bad guy. Some of the things he says are in themselves defensible – even if many would disagree with him – but he says them with such little grace and barely concealed contempt that some of the overall argument is lost. When a villain is so villainous in a documentary it does make you wonder if the whole thing is a set-up. Later Clarke will avoid the young men, calling them ‘idiots’.

The final confrontation – when Collins and Kimber travel to Dubai to try to discover what the International Cricket Council have got up to – is firmly within the ‘performative mode’. They themselves comment on this by introducing their ‘fake sheikh’ (a ruse often used to expose sporting scandals in the UK, where a reporter disguised as an Arab sheikh wears a microphone and camera beneath his robes to trap the bad guys. What is shocking is that despite the exposure of these senior administrators, nothing has really changed in world cricket, except that these two have kept their powerful roles with slightly different titles. Collins and Kimber have started a Campaign to Change Cricket with a public demonstration at the Oval Test on August 20th, a petition and more with details available on the website. The change is needed to stop the domination of world cricket by the representatives of India, England and Australia who have effectively marginalised the other seven Test Match countries and the larger group of associate members who need support to develop cricket in their countries. The three big players have the TV markets sewn up and they don’t want to share the spoils. As one of the interviewees points out, the real question is whether test cricket needs money to survive and grow or whether test cricket exists to make money for the interests who control it.

This film isn’t great cinema but it is a useful exposure of what is happening at the top of international cricket that raises important questions for all cricket lovers. You can still see it in selected cinemas (a list on the website) and once it is available on DVD it must surely be seen in every cricket clubhouse.

Presenting Amy (UK 2015)


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: