Category: Documentary

Citizenfour (Germany-US-UK 2014)

Citizenfour for the people

Citizenfour for the people

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Glasgow FF15 #1: Stray Dog (US 2014)

Ronnie Hall with the latest addition to his family.

Ronnie Hall with the latest addition to his family.

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

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

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

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

Open Bethlehem (Operation Bethlehem, Palestine/UAE 2014)

Writer-director Leila Sansour in her battered car.

Writer-director Leila Sansour in her battered car.

Open Bethlehem is a difficult film to write about. It is currently being shown in the UK, supported by various organisations and celebrities. It is planned for a release in North America on the same basis in December 2015. The film shows many important aspects of the history of Palestine and in particular what has happened in the isolated Palestinian city of Bethlehem. I want to support the film in many of its objectives and I was happy to support the local Palestine Solidarity Campaign group which helped to organise the screening. Unfortunately I had problems with the film ‘as a film’ and I fear these may get in the way of its presentation of very important issues and debates.

Leila Sansour is from one of Bethlehem’s most prominent families. Her father Anton Sansour set up Bethlehem University in 1973 in what was previously a Roman Catholic seminary. Leila was born in Russia when her father taught at Moscow University. She lived in Bethlehem during the 1970s and 1980s before leaving to attend universities in France, the UK and Russia. She began work in television for Al Jazheera and in 2002 returned to Bethlehem to make Jeremy Hardy v. The Israeli Army, a documentary about the resistance to the Israeli occupation (and the siege of Bethlehem) seen through the eyes of ‘an ordinary guy’ in the person of a British comedian. Sansour’s strategy in this film and Open Bethlehem has been to use celebrity figures to attract audience attention. She is married to the British novelist Nicholas Blincoe and I was surprised to see the Guardian journalist John Harris popping up in Open Bethlehem. Later on in the film, attracting international figures to Bethlehem becomes the whole point of the project. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Leila Sansour returned again to Bethlehem in 2004 intending to film the construction of the Separation Wall intended to keep the illegal Jewish settlers and the whole state of Israel ‘safe’ from Palestinian ‘incursions’. As she explains, Bethlehem is a particularly sensitive city partly because of its international status as the birthplace of Christ and because it is located relatively close to Jerusalem in part of the West Bank with good water resources. The Occupation forces have more or less isolated Bethlehem from the remainder of the West Bank. In the event, Sansour was persuaded to stay in Bethlehem by her only remaining relative, her cousin Carol who was still in the family house (after her father died, the rest of Sansour’s family left the country – like much of the Christian population of Palestine over the last twenty years). Her filming lost its focus and she became involved in an ambitious project to promote Bethlehem to the outside world, part of which involved a tourist campaign to persuade visitors to the Church of Nativity to stay overnight and enjoy other aspects of Bethlehem life, instead of coming for an hour on an Israeli bus and, as she says, “barely noticing that they are in Palestine”. The central plank of the project is a ‘Bethlehem Passport’ which announces that the bearer is a ‘citizen of an ancient international city’. These passports were sent to the Pope and other church leaders, politicians and celebrities. For a while in 2005-6 it looked like the project was going to be a success but eventually it lost momentum and funding and eventually Carol too left Bethlehem. Leila Sansour decided at this crisis point to stay on and to try to finish the film. I suspect that it was funding from the Emirates (an important production partner for recent Palestinian films) and various international arts agencies that has enabled the film to be completed and released.

The finished film is strongest in its depiction of the building of the Wall around and through the city of Bethlehem and the terrible impact on the lives of Palestinians. It is also useful in presenting the history of Bethlehem itself and of the economic problems of a city largely dependent on tourism now being effectively strangled by the occupation forces. There are two major weaknesses for me. One is technical. The material for the film was shot over several years, mainly I think on various different video formats and then combined with archive material of varying quality. I’m used to the way modern documentary films either crop or stretch Academy ratio archive film. I’m afraid we’ve rather lost that battle, but in this film there also appears to be some footage which was shot in a wider format than 16:9 and then ‘squeezed’ to fit. This looks very odd and I can’t explain it. Overall the force of the arguments should help to overcome these difficulties but I think they are compounded by what I thought were sometimes unsuitable graphics and music. More important though is the overall approach of the ‘personal story’. I know this is a feature of documentary films that is sometimes thought to make them more palatable for audiences, especially in the US (e.g. see Five Broken Cameras). However, when the personal story is that of the writer-director and effectively the ‘star’ of the film it does create a great deal of pressure. I felt in this case that it would have been better to have had at least one independent, ‘impartial’ creative input – ideally as director. As it is, there are aspects of the story that still puzzle me. For instance, the Christian communities in Bethlehem were traditionally at the centre of the city’s life, making up more than half the population but latest figures suggest that they might now be less than 20%. Why have they left? Is it simply that they are often the wealthiest families, able to emigrate? Are the Israelis purposely trying to drive them out? Are there other reasons? The three main churches, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian, remain but I wasn’t sure watching the film which church the Sansours belonged to (it became clear in my post-screening research). I confess that the presence of so many celebrity figures in the film also tended to put me off. Leila Sansour does say at one point that she didn’t want to appear as “just another tourist” in Bethlehem but I would have liked to know more about the ‘ordinary people’ of the city glimpsed in some footage (I was interested in the crafts people who make the various devotional objects sold to tourists). The irony is that the ‘Open Bethlehem’ Project eventually ‘failed’ because it could not sustain funding from international bodies. Initial funding from a Swiss body was granted on condition that the project was to be about tourism and not ‘politics’. Of course, tourism and politics are inextricably connected in Bethlehem and I think that the film could have explored this more than it did. It might also have contextualised Bethlehem’s plight in the politics of the Occupation of all of Palestine.

So, there is useful material here and I do hope the film changes minds or at least informs audiences. But there are other Palestinian documentaries that deserve the exposure this film is getting and I hope they will be seen too.

The Open Bethlehem website indicates how the project has been revitalised and it also provides a listing of screenings across the UK in the weeks to come.

Some of the problems with the material are visible in this trailer:

School of Babel (La cour de Babel, France 2014)

Mariam, a Libyan girl who has been living in Egypt attempts to write in French at the start of SCHOOL OF BABEL. photo courtesy New Wave Films

Mariam, a Libyan girl who has been living in Egypt, attempts to write in French at the start of SCHOOL OF BABEL. Photo courtesy New Wave Films

School of Babel is a very effective and highly enjoyable documentary about young people from around the world meeting in a Paris classroom where they attempt to gain enough fluency in the French language to benefit from the French education service.

The film’s structure is conventional, offering scenes from a year in the ‘adaptation class’ taught by Brigitte Cervoni. The students range in age from 11 to 15 and according to the pressbook there are 24 students from different countries speaking many different ‘first’ languages. Director Julie Bertuccelli, who also shot the film, editor Josiane Zardoya and the sound crew have done a brilliant job in creating a seamless narrative, weaving together the individual stories into a collective narrative that gives a very positive view of the French education system. Music by Olivier Daviaud is unobtrusive and supports the narrative flow. Bertuccelli visited the school twice a week over a year and recorded hours of footage which scenes have been compiled into scenes and edited to make a 94 minute film.

The film only strays out of Mme Cervoni’s classroom a couple of times – to see the students going to the exam hall and to follow them to a film festival in Chartres where they screen a film they have made. (It was because of a previous festival entry that the director became aware of the school situated in the 10th arrondissement.) Occasionally, however, we are offered a view of the playground (‘la cour‘ of the French title) taken from a high angle. This acts like one of Ozu’s ‘pillow shots’, punctuating the flow of mini-stories about several of the students in the class and signifying the passage of time. The narrative succeeds because these mini-stories are interesting and together they give us an insight into what it must be like for these students. I’ve seen at least one UK review refer to these young people as ‘immigrants’ and I think that this is misleading and, in the present climate of xenophobia promoted by UKIP and the right in the UK, rather disturbing. Several of the young people are ‘passing through’ Paris – some might be refugees others are temporary residents because of their parents’ work.

I suppose it is quite logical that some reviewers should refer to the previous successful French film The Class (Entre les murs, 2008). That film was about a mainstream secondary school class, though it did have a mix of students from different African and Caribbean communities. It also features a teacher who thinks he knows how to teach and who gets into conflict with the students. School of Babel has a very experienced teacher who is calm and understanding but also firm. We mainly experience her methods through seeing how the students react to her pedagogic ideas. The film starts with students writing their names and nationalities in a French sentence on the blackboard. Then they are asked to tell each other how they would say ‘Bonjour’ in their own language. There are conflicts because of religious differences and ignorance of other cultures and at least one young man makes what is clearly a racist comment. Mme Cervoni keeps everything under control and gradually the group learns to work together.

Close-ups are a feature of the coverage of the students in the classroom. Photo courtesy New Wave Films.

Close-ups are a feature of the coverage of the students in the classroom. Photo courtesy New Wave Films.

The individual stories tell us about problems some students face that will be familiar to teachers of similar groups anywhere. One African girl is frightened to go ‘home’ to her parent’s country because she fears genital mutilation. Another is told that in Africa she would be lucky to get any education at all as a girl. A Chinese girl struggles to improve her French speech because she only speaks Mandarin to her mother and she can’t go out to socialise when her mother is at work in the evenings. We learn about the students partly from conversations between the teacher and the parents. For a UK audience it is interesting to hear an Irish woman discussing her son’s progress – she has had to move from Northern Ireland for family reasons. But we also see a talented young Latin American boy bring in his cello and play for the class (I think he is in Paris primarily to study music) and a girl from Ukraine singing.

The other possible reference point for the film might be some of the recent reality TV programmes on education – like the well-received Educating Yorkshire. But unlike these shows there is no direct-to-camera address and no long-running emotional story of triumph against the odds. There is no great emphasis on creating ‘characters’ who will become ‘heroes’ of the narrative. Having said that, the narrative does move to a climax but I won’t spoil what happens.

The press notes include an interview with the director and this is well worth reading. Here she explains what attracted her to wanting to explore what happens in this classroom:

These teenagers have already spent many years in their country of origin. It is a strong uprooting at this age. Once in France they are virtually adults because of their big responsibilities. They are sometimes in charge of the whole family as they are the only member to speak French. They are not yet in the post-migration phase, they are not fed up. They are not stigmatised or rejected for being part of any given category of immigrants. We know that this feeling of a dead end and this future can still happen, but we also know that everything is still possible. They are full of hope. I am perhaps showing a protected and ideal capsule, a utopia in action, but I also show a little theatre of our world in which energy and hope can produce miracles in the same way as the trust and reception provided to these youths . . .

This is a lovely film. Watch it and feel better about yourself and about the world. I’d like to think that UKIP voters and Daily Mail readers could watch the film and learn something but I can’t find any evidence that the Mail reviewed the film.

This trailer with English subs gives an idea of how the film works. Note the use of close-ups, focusing directly on the students and what they have to say:

We hope to screen this film as part of a new programme in Bradford – watch this space!