This unusual little film, barely an hour long, intrigues though little seems to happen in what passes as a narrative. It is only afterwards, while reflecting on the film, that you realise that it is a carefully considered construction, a hybrid of fiction and documentary that aims to make a number of interesting and important statements. After several festival screenings it is now available on MUBI in the UK. One of the two writer-directors, Sergio Da Costa developed an idea first and then discovered a Swiss documentary project that offered to fully fund a film. Da Costa applied with his partner Maya Kosa and they were awarded funding. Kosa then became as enthusiastic as Da Costa (the pair had worked together on a previous film, Rio Corgo (2015).
The two filmmakers had discovered an injured bird by the roadside in 2013 and taken it to a bird rehabilitation centre near the airport in Geneva. It was Da Costa who was surprised that the centre didn’t correspond to the stereotype of a sanitised Swiss operation. It seemed more chaotic. Da Costa says he was more sensitised by the place: “I saw its cinematic potential as a disaster film”. (See the interview on MUBI.) What the filmmakers then produced was a fiction which used some of the real workers at the centre plus a non-professional actor playing the central character Antonin. All the actors used their own first names. The cast is actually much smaller than the workforce of the centre, allowing more focus on the characters. Antonin is a young man recovering from cancer treatment and he arrives at the centre as a form of apprentice, learning a job partly as therapy. He is still subject to moments of complete lack of energy and his habit of literally falling asleep at work is a surprise to Paul, the older man who is about to retire after teaching Antonin how to breed mice and rats that will be fed to the captive birds of prey in the centre. As well as Paul, the other featured workers are Sandrine, who generally cares for the birds, Emilie the vet and Iwan who appears to be a handyman of sorts.
There certainly is an air of melancholy about the centre and we see some scenes that the usual audience for TV wildlife programmes might find distressing. I haven’t watched the various TV reality shows featuring vets, but I suspect they may show some of Emilie’s activities. She works on the wounds suffered by a swan, an owl that has suffered severe shock and is required to euthanase a small bird. The mice have to be killed by Antonin and then dissected to provide fresh meat for the convalescing birds. Most of what I’ve described might be expected in a documentary about the centre, which is also a centre in which some of the staff are ‘rehabilitating’ as well as the birds they care for. Fortunately we don’t get any of the less welcome features of TV wildlife programmes such as the anthropomorphising of birds, cheery presenters or dramatic music. However we do get some music and several other artistic devices. The brief music uses comprise three classical/religious pieces which Da Costa says came from his own sensitivity to religious music and he agrees that they are part of the melancholic feel. (The three pieces are by Georg Philipp Telemann, Dieterich Buxtehude and Sergei Rachmaninoff). Elsewhere on the soundtrack we are aware of the planes flying over. There are also several snatches of voiceover taken from a diary the filmmakers asked Antonin to keep during the production. The reference here is to Robert Bresson’s 1951 film Diary of a Country Priest. These references might lead you to think that the film is overly serious and pretentious but this isn’t so. The melancholy is relieved by moments of tenderness and humour as well as sadness. One idea that worked for me is the way in which a heat-sensitive camera is used (differently) a couple of times. The first time it is used is surprising but works well if you stick with it.
I began by suggesting that little happens in the narrative but that isn’t really the case. There is drama and Antonin definitely learns and changes as a result of his experiences. I note that the filmmakers have thought a lot about how the centre is a kind of retreat from the damage caused by humans both to each other, to other other living creatures and to the ecology as a whole. One of the references in what appears like an artist’s ‘mood board’ on MUBI’s presentation pages on the film is a cover from an edition of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. This is a gentle humanist film focusing on an institution that tries to repair some of the damage human society has caused.
The film was shot on 16mm and is presented without masking in Academy ratio. Dialogue is in French. I’m still thinking about it and I certainly recommend watching it.
I was profoundly moved by this film (currently streaming on MUBI) for many reasons. It’s a film about a mother, a wife and a lover as much as it is about a strong independent woman determined to pursue her art. The two can’t be separated. There is one line in the film spoken by Isabella Rossellini with genuine feeling, when she gives ‘charm’ as the one word to sum up her mother and that struck me quite forcibly. It’s perhaps a strange word to choose about your mother and in other contexts we are often suspicious about celebrities described as ‘having charm’, as if we know this masks other possible less acceptable sides to their personalities. But each of Ingrid Bergman’s four children agree that their mother was always fun to be with and they remember that fondly even though she was absent from their childhood homes for much of the time. When she was there she made it up to them. Her ‘absences’ were mainly to do with work but she was clearly so determined to pursue what she wanted that needing to be close to her children was not something that would stop her.
Bergman’s was a remarkable career, arguably not matched by any other actor. She began, as many Swedish actors of her generation, in drama school and then moved quickly into films with her first credited role in 1935 aged 20. She also got married for the first time in 1936. Her Swedish film career lasted until 1940 by which time she had already repeated one of her roles in Hollywood and from 1941 she quickly became a Hollywood star contracted to David O. Selznick. In a few short years Bergman became a beloved figure in the US before she ‘scandalised’ America in 1949 by moving to Italy to work for and fall in love with Roberto Rossellini, leaving behind her husband and her daughter. Her Rossellini years ended in the mid 1950s by which time she had moved to Paris, making a film for Jean Renoir and eventually re-connecting with Hollywood, mainly on European productions. The last part of her career was spent working out of London.
Ingrid Bergman was a different kind of ‘global film star’. All the stars (and the filmmakers) of classical Hollywood were ‘global’ in the sense that their films were seen everywhere. Several stars had travelled from Europe to America and possibly back – but usually to the same country they had left several years before. But few had made films (and sometimes appeared on stage) in productions in five different languages (Swedish, German, English, Italian and French). It was an extraordinary career. I offer all this as context since this documentary focuses more on Bergman herself and less on the films she appeared in. IMDb lists 55 credits for film and television (around full 40 feature films). I feel slightly distanced from the discussion of Bergman as an actor and star simply because I don’t approach her as a Hollywood star primarily. She herself in the documentary says that the films she made with Rossellini did not appeal to audiences and there is an implication that she herself didn’t like them or value them that much. This is disappointing since it was watching Stromboli (1949) in a BFI preview theatre which first caused me to become interested in Bergman and I’ve come to like the other films with Rossellini as well. This doesn’t mean I don’t necessarily like the American films – I think her playing in Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) remains one of the great viewing pleasures. I’ve also enjoyed Renoir’s Elena et les hommes (1956) and the Swedish June Night (1940).
In formal terms, this ‘bio doc’ might be grouped with the trilogy of similar films by Asif Kapadia which present the stories of Ayrton Senna (2010), Amy Winehouse (2015) and Diego Maradona (2019). As in those stories, the director, Stig Björkman (a celebrated veteran film writer, critic and journalist), has been able to ‘present’ the story of his subject entirely through either Bergman’s own words (recorded in diaries and letters) and images (captured on 16mm) plus archive film and television and the stories of her immediate family and friends. Alicia Vikander, in many ways a contemporary star with a similar career path, reads Bergman’s words from her diaries. The major difference between Björkman’s film and those of Kapadia is that Bergman’s is a much longer story and although it includes ‘media moments’ when she scandalised America, this is only part of the story and not a defining element of the whole. There are other lesser differences as well but overall this quartet represent a popular form of biopic, able to draw upon archive material with seeming authenticity – though of course each film is still written and edited and the choices made still determine how the narrative is likely to be read by the audience.
What emerges from Bergman’s story is a narrative that exposes her difficult childhood and teenage years when she lost her mother at a very early age and then her beloved father. This is then contrasted with her happiness in bearing four beautiful children in the difficult circumstances outlined above (i.e. the divorces and the absences). The film is full of insights and we learn that Ingrid’s remarkable poise and calmness for the camera comes from her early experience of being photographed by her father and this in turn led to her own adoption of a film camera (16mm and colour) to record her own children (she came from a middle-class family and was used to a life with the privileges of travel and nice homes). I’ve seen comments by viewers who claim to be easily bored by ‘home movies’ but I think that Bergman’s camera captures something lively and emotionally powerful. There are more ‘talking head’ ‘witness statements’ in this film than in those of Kapadia, I think (i.e. more statements recorded later). This wasn’t a problem for me and as an aside it seemed to me that more women spoke about working with her. It was interesting to hear Liv Ullman and Sigourney Weaver. I hadn’t realised that there was so much discussion about Bergman’s height (references vary but 5′ 8” to 5′ 9” seems most common) in Hollywood, but Sigourney Weaver explains that it was a relief to meet a female actor who had never been bothered by her height – which in the 1940s was tall for women. Out of all the Hollywood footage the most compelling is the first screen test Bergman had in Hollywood for Selznick, for which the clapperboard says “No Make-Up, No lip gloss”. Ingrid looks young, fresh, vital and very lovely with an immediate warm response to the camera. (See the last shot of the trailer below and the still above.) No wonder they wanted her.
I watched Ava Gardner on screen a few days ago and she was breathtakingly beautiful. Ingrid Bergman was also beautiful but she had something else as well. I’m still not quite sure what it was and it’s interesting that I have appreciated it more as I’ve got older. I’m going to look at her films again. As far as this documentary is concerned I should also report that Michael Nyman’s music is used throughout. Personally I like Nyman’s music but I know he is ‘Marmite’ – with great fans and also those who can’t stand the music. My only gripe about the film is that sometimes Alicia Vikander’s modern American-tinged accent grates. I like Ms Vikander as an actor ver much and I place the blame on the director. I’m sure she could have read the diaries and letters in a style closer to Bergman’s in the 1930s/40s. I’ve emphasised that the documentary doesn’t cover all the films, but even so I was disappointed that there is very little reference to her time in London in the final part of her career and the three pictures she made in the UK.
[Once last point for Keith. This film is listed as 1.78:1 aspect ratio, so the pre-1953 film footage should be Academy and it is, being placed inside the 16:9 frame. But having watched it on both my computer and on the TV screen and then on a recording I made when it was shown on the BBC Imagine . . . series in 2017-18, I noted that sometimes captions which had slid outside the Academy frame were clipped off by masking within the 16:9 frame. I’m not sure how that happened.]
A couple of weeks ago we received a message from Kenya asking if we were interested in helping to promote a scheme which supports documentary filmmakers in East Africa. ‘Sema Stori’ simply means something like ‘tell a story’ in Swahili, so if you search for the title online, many different kinds of material pops up. What we are specifically concerned with here is a scheme linked to Docubox and Comic Relief (the tagline on the scheme’s website is ‘Stories that Speak’). The aim of the scheme is to offer mentorship by an established filmmaker and funding to make a documentary on one of four important topics: Mental Health, Early Childhood Development, Gender Justice, and the Right to Safe Secure Shelter and settlement. The scheme was promoted in Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, offering up to £10,000 each for a maximum of ten films. The scheme had an applications deadline in May 2019 and the completed films have been made available in August 2020. You can access the films on the Facebook Channel of Sema Stori. Unfortunately, we have withdrawn from Facebook and closed our account so I have not been able to see the films. But since there are aspects of the programme presented elsewhere, I have decided to do some more research.
Documentary in East Africa
There is a long tradition of documentary filmmaking with a focus on ‘social documentary’ in East Africa and in other anglophone African countries. This is often seen to derive from the legacy of British colonial film policy which saw documentary film as a means of aiding social education. (It was also a means of propagandising on behalf of British interests) At the time of independence in the 1960s it did also provide the new nation states with some basic infrastructure and a small group of trained personnel. In other parts of Africa, similar ‘legacies’ meant that the early film cultures of the new nation states followed a different trajectory to that of francophone ex-colonies where French colonial policy promoted French culture and laid a foundation for more artistically inclined films in countries such as Senegal or Ivory Coast. The British-influenced documentary approach resulted in what some commentators described as ‘development filmmaking’. In the last ten years, 50 years after the end of the colonial period, we might expect this legacy to be no longer visible but it seems to have survived in a changed and updated way.
Who are Docubox? Here is the statement on the front of their website:
DOCUBOX IS THE EAST AFRICAN DOCUMENTARY FILM FUND
We exist to enable talented, driven, focused and accountable East African artists to produce unique films that unearth new realities and cross trans-national boundaries. Through training, development and production grants, screenings for people who love documentary films, we promote East African filmmakers and share their unique stories with the world through creative documentary. We currently fund fiction under The Box.
Based in Nairobi, Docubox in the modern parlance of film development work, appears to be an important hub – an organisation that brings together funders such as NGOs, charities and other resources with aspiring filmmakers, and practitioners prepared to take on mentoring roles. Its aim is to promote film as an agency for social change. One of the driving forces behind Docubox is Judy Kibinge who was born in Kenya, lived in the US as a small child and educated in schools and higher education in the UK before working in advertising, corporate video productions and eventually as an independent filmmaker in Kenya, gaining an international reputation. Docubox is a Kenyan organisation but its funding partners include the British Council, The Danish Centre for Culture and Development (CKU), the Ford Foundation, Comic Relief and Hivos – People Unlimited (Netherlands). Docubox has used the available funding to create a range of projects covering both social documentary and fiction and as well as online screenings it has organised documentary screenings in Nairobi courtesy of the screening facilities of Alliance Française. In this way it has helped many aspiring filmmakers to gain exposure.
Comic Relief is a UK-based charity founded by the scriptwriter Richard Curtis and the comedian and actor Lenny Henry in 1985 as a response to the Ethiopian famine. Since then it has grown significantly raising money from biennial ‘Red Nose Days’ which feature community fund-raising initiatives and a ‘charity telethon’. I have to confess that this is not something I have watched or taken part in for a whole host of reasons so I can’t really comment on the venture. A spin-off from the television coverage has involved various UK TV personalities making trips to Africa in particular to discover how the money raised has been spent. Again I haven’t watched any of these, but they have attracted some criticism with suggestions that they reinforce negative typing of Africa and Africans. Because of this I’m slightly wary of Comic Relief’s role in Docubox but it is reassuring to see that Docubox is purely Kenyan.
Docubox clearly want to see proposals for films that focus on personal stories rather than traditional investigative reports with ‘expert’ talking heads. They demonstrate this by offering examples on their website. I haven’t managed to see the films produced for the project, but I have discovered several of the video statements made by filmmakers who I assume applied. You can check the Docubox advice on how to submit and watch the short statements below (they are each only a few minutes long).
Finally I found a statement by someone who I think has been successful in making a film for the project. I think this is Eugene Muigai and his film is called ‘It’s Okay Not To Be Okay’ which should have appeared on the Facebook page of Sema Stori earlier in August.
Released online during June 2020 in the UK and Australia (where it was in cinemas in 2019), The Australian Dream was broadcast by the BBC and is now available on iPlayer for “11 months”. I recommend this documentary for any audience but especially for any sports fans during this period of ‘Black Lives Matter’. Having said that, I recognise that there are aspects of what the BBC blurb describes as an “inspirational story” that might not be understood in some cultures. I’ve read at least one prestigious reviewer in the US who didn’t ‘get’ aspects of the film.
Adam Goodes is an Indigenous Australian who became not only a major star in his sport, but also the holder of the ‘Australian of the Year’ Award in 2014. However, the casual racism that continues to plague Australian social and public life and Goodes’ own discovery about his family background and the history of his indigenous community eventually meant that he retired as a football player at least a couple of years earlier than he might have expected. His story is indeed inspirational, not only in how he became a great player but also in how he responded to both the praise and the racial abuse of football fans and social commentators.
Australia is a passionate sports nation, arguably one of the most passionate in the world. Australians are generally good at sports and they support local and national teams in large numbers both in the stadiums and on TV and on social media. There are four types of ‘football’ played professionally. The most watched and the wealthiest is what is colloquially known as ‘Aussie rules’ or ‘footy’ with a major competition, the AFL (Australian Football league), a competition of 18 teams attracting some of the world’s biggest crowds to the Melbourne Cricket Ground (the MCG) for league championship finals. ‘Aussie Rules’ has some similarities with Gaelic Football in Ireland but indigenous Australians have also claimed that a similar kind of game was played before the Europeans arrived. Australia also has Rugby League, Rugby Union and Association Football – ‘soccer’ in the US – but none of these has the playing and spectatorship base of the AFL.
This documentary is one of two competing titles, both released in 2019. I haven’t seen The Final Quarter but it is available online in the UK via iTunes. The Final Quarter uses only archive material to tell its story and it provides educational support materials (but only in Australia – see the official website). The Australian Dream does feature Adam Goodes himself and he is, in every way, the ‘star’ of the documentary. The film is written by the Indigenous Australian journalist Stan Grant, a distinguished figure as journalist and news anchor in Australia. He appears at various points in the film. The director is Daniel Gordon, the British documentarist who specialises in sports stories who I remember as the director of The Game of Their Lives (2002) about the North Korean national football team who competed in the World Cup Finals in England and gained many fans.
The Australian Dream is a highly narrativised documentary, starting and ending with celebrations for ‘Australia Day’, an emotional moment for many indigenous Australians for whom the celebrations are painful reminders of ‘Invasion Day’ when Europeans first arrived in Australia. Adam Goodes is the hero of this story and there are recognisable ‘helpers’, ‘blockers’ and ‘villains’ in terms of a Proppian analysis of the narrative. But this isn’t necessarily a conventional narrative in which the hero attains his goal and rescues the princess in the tower. The real achievement for Adam Goodes is that he discovers himself and recognises his identity and that being able to do this helps him get through the racist abuse and resume his life as he wants to live it. He receives a great deal of support from friends, family and footy fans and also the administrators of the football game itself. The tragedy is that despite this, the words and actions associated with casual racism in Australian society generally can do so much damage.
I can’t comment directly on Australian racism. I can only respond to the representations offered by Australian film, TV, literature and broadcast media – and it looks pretty bad from that perspective. But I can recognise so much in Adam Goodes’ story from studying the attempts to stamp out racist behaviour in UK sport and especially in British football (e.g. what is now the English Premier League, the highest profile sport in the UK). In the last few years we have seen players like Raheem Sterling picked out for criticism in the tabloid press and on social media and the England team in Bulgaria in 2019 almost moved to leaving the pitch after a barrage of racist chants. They stayed and won 6-0, which is a good response but they shouldn’t have to face this abuse. The incident that sparked much of the controversy in The Australian Dream concerned a 13 year-old spectator at a major game, a girl at the front of the stand, close to the pitch, who called Goodes an ‘Ape’ when he came towards the fence. Stunned, Goodes asked for her to be removed and the stewards obliged. After the game Goodes accepted a telephone call from the girl, who apologised. He had the grace to accept the apology and to assure her that she was not the problem. She had heard this kind of language somewhere – it’s endemic in the society. But Adam Goodes can’t erase the incident and soon it was picked up by racists on social media and by Andrew Bolt, a TV pundit who accused Goodes of an over-reaction and of ruining the girl’s life. In this kind of repeated claim, the victim of racist abuse becomes responsible himself for the further abuse heaped upon him. Some of the critics of the film suggest it gave too much space to Bolt. I hadn’t come across Bolt before but he is familiar in that British TV and journalism features many similar characters. The only difference is that he appears calmer and ‘colder’ but his clear intentions are just as objectionable. Some critics have also suggested that there is too much use of Stan Grant in the film and I can see that, while Grant’s support for Goodes needs to be aired, the footballer is his own best advocate.
What is ‘casual racism’? I guess that the distinction is between ‘casual’ and ‘institutional racism’. For many years the spotlight was on attempts to fight institutional racism- the ways in which institutional structures had developed to exclude and marginalise people outside the mainstream (or in some cases the élite) in major institutions. That fight is not won yet but things have begun to improve. Ironically, the incident that sparked the racist backlash against Adam Goodes occurred in a footy game that was part of the ‘Indigenous Round’, a round of matches each season in which the contribution of Indigenous players to the League’s success is celebrated. The AFL itself has been supportive but has been undermined by some of the major figures in the game, whose racist comments have created the openings for the real fascists in the society to exploit. ‘Casual racism’ is not ‘casual’ for those who are most affected by it. Within football in particular, such comments have often been ‘excused’ or ‘de-fanged’ by renaming them ‘banter’, a concept referring to the way professional sports people play jokes on each other, insult each other etc. in the name of friendship. Banter is fine if everyone who plays the game accepts the rules. But banter can easily become deeply offensive and racial difference is very dangerous territory for ‘jokes’. In recent years, casual racism has also become part of the so-called ‘culture wars’ which have become a central poisonous discourse across social media and something exploited by the new right to devastating effect.
Adam Goodes is a remarkable man and I think many people will be moved by not only his dignified response to the attacks upon him but also by his emotional relationship with his mother, who he later discovers was part of the ‘Stolen Generation’ of Indigenous Australian children. Everyone should see films like this and ask themselves serious questions about how they behave on social media and in the decisions they make in their social lives. ‘The Australian Dream’ is an ironic and suggestive title that certainly demands investigation and reflection.
The International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam (IDFA) is offering the opportunity to watch films online with some free and others charging a fee. There are 450 free short documentaries and I chose three titles all produced by students at the International Film School in Cuba, an important institution founded by Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Cuban filmmakers Julio Garcia Espinosa and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and the Argentinian filmmaker Fernando Birri in December 1986. The school was set up to provide education and training for primarily Latin American filmmakers and it has received support from filmmakers around the world. It is best known as ‘Escuela Internacional de Cine y Television’ or EICTV.
The three films I chose were all submitted to IDFA’s student competition. I was first attracted to two films dealing with aspects of Cuban Railways. I hadn’t realised that Cuba saw some of the first steam railways in the world (before Spain) and that although the system has suffered because of the US blockade and the end of aid from the USSR, there has been a revival recently with new stock from China and Iran and older equipment from other countries maintaining diplomatic relations with Cuba.
The Load (La Carga, 2015, 25 mins), dir Victor Alexis Guerrero, is less about the railway itself and more about the men who work on it. We open somewhere on a single track railway through fields with grass that nearly grows over the tracks. It’s night and there appear to be several men in a freight car. At first I was confused by this. I knew there wouldn’t be illegal riders on the train, but I remembered that many Cubans have had to travel in communal trucks, either because they can’t afford long distance buses or services have not been available. One of the men in the freight car is trying to get a light to work with bare wires and a piece of card. Eventually he manages it and we can see that in total there are seven men on the train and they are all crew. They live in a wagon with bunks and a cooking range. One of them is the driver and the others are presumably there to help load and unload the train of wagons. They are based at a railhead in Matanzas, the port city some 55 miles east of Havana. Cuban Railways clearly has some problems and the men find themselves waiting around for a new load. We have already seen their difficulty in moving their open wagons. At one point with the train slipping on the rails, the men are out putting sand on the rails to try to achieve better adhesion.But mostly the men engage in familiar forms of banter including tales about women. Eventually a new load is found for the train and they trundle away with a load of aggregate for building work. It’s nice to just spend a few minutes with a group of working men, bitching about their jobs, just like workers anywhere.
Inertia (All Pantographs Go to Heaven, 2008, 15 mins), dir Armando Capó Ramos, is also about railways but it is a very different kind of film. Its subject is the ‘Hershey Railway’. This railway between Havana and Matanzas is the only electric line surviving in Cuba, all the other motive power is diesel. It was built originally by the US chocolate giant Hershey in circa 1916 to transport sugar to Havana from its mill in the town of Hershey (now Camilo Cienfeugos). Several branch lines were also constructed to enable workers to get to the mill. Some of these are now closed, along with the mill, but tourist traffic keeps the system open. This short film reminds me of some of the Cuban revolutionary/avant garde shorts of the 1960s. There isn’t much in the way of political comment, except for a sequence in which I’m guessing that a group of local passengers look rather bored and disapproving when a musical group boards the train and performs a conga down the aisle, presumably with some tourists joining in. Earlier we have been offered a montage of close-ups of faces and objects and an aerial/overhead shot of the train shed (possibly the camera was running along a rail suspend from the ceiling?). As well as montage, the filmmaker also uses reverse projection, so the same car moves swiftly out of the shed and then back. In the final third of the film, the camera remains static as the train stops and we watch the passengers walking away down the track and gradually out of focus. This last shot lasts 5 minutes and does prove oddly fascinating.
The ideas explored here about how to represent the railway and its passengers are interesting but I’m not sure that they are fully integrated. I would guess that the filmmaker hasn’t got the experience needed to assess the completed film and then go back and re-edit. On the other hand, why should the documentary prioritise ‘coherence’? I was intrigued by the film and I did get a sense of what the railway was like. Perhaps that’s enough?
Iceberg (2015, 26 mins), dir Juliana Gabriela Gomez Castañeda, seemed to me the most successful of the three films. It is a film about loneliness which manages to compress a maternal family melodrama into its 26 minutes. Although the central character reveals her pain in two short sequences, we also see that she lives in a small community that appears to be supportive. I’m guessing that this is the meaning of the title. Like an iceberg, Teresa appears on the surface to be happy in her community, but underneath she is pining for contact with her daughter and with her mother in the cemetery.
Teresa lives in a small community on the coast close to Puerto Santiago de Cuba. She is not completely alone because her dog Diana seems to accompany her everywhere. Most days Teresa, who is in her 60s, goes fishing. She has two floats linked together by chains which she places in the water, and then sits back in the water with one float under legs and the other beneath her upper torso creating a star shape. Diana jumps up between her legs and stands on the float and Teresa uses her arms to gently paddle out into the bay. Occasionally she catches a small fish. It’s not an efficient way to fish but it doesn’t cost anything and it’s a nice way to spend the day. In the first part of the film, María, her granddaughter is staying with her, but soon she has to go back to boarding school by ferry. Teresa’s social life revolves around the church and a drink with friends in the evening when she sings. But she is most expressive in her phone call to her daughter in another city who hasn’t seen María for some time. The film is beautifully shot in a ‘Scope ratio and like the first film, shows the ordinary lives of Cubans.
Cuban cinema was the leader of Latin American cinema in the 1960s and it is good to see that the International Film School is still training new talents, especially in documentary. Perhaps if Trump loses in November, the Cuban industry might benefit from any lifting of the US blockade? I certainly hope so.
When the opening credits of this wonderful documentary rolled and I realised that this was going to be an outside observer’s take on the phenomenon that is India’s annual monsoon, I did experience a moment of concern about yet another westerner’s perspective on the sub-continent. Why was this appearing in an online version of the London Indian Film Festival? In the UK especially, we get a wide range of Indian-set documentary material on TV of varying quality, some excellent but some much less so and the lingering sense of Raj nostalgia and an orientalist eye is often evident. However, in this case I think the film escapes this kind of possible censure.
Sturla Gunnarsson is a distinguished filmmaker, born in Iceland but raised and educated in Canada where he began work with the National Film Board and developed a stellar career in documentary and fiction for cinema and TV. I feel ashamed not to know about his long and successful career – my only defence being the usual one that Canadian filmmaking still struggles to get distribution in the UK. Monsoon is not his first film set in India and this becomes evident very quickly.
Gunnarsson offers us several different ways of thinking about the annual monsoon. One is through the stories of individual characters – a family in a village on the backwaters in Kerala, a bookie in Kolkata, a retired meteorologist in Pune etc. Another is about the sheer physical presence of the monsoon and the spiritual questions it raises about how the need to cope with such powerful natural forces has an impact on a large and diverse country like India. In subtle ways the film also makes comments on social, economic and political questions about India. The film was shot on 4K digital and must be very impressive on cinema screens. The stunning imagery is accompanied by an excellent music score by Andrew T. Mackay and the Bombay Dub Orchestra.
The structure of the film follows roughly the course of the monsoon which hits Southern Kerala in the first few days of June and moves North and East over the next few weeks.One of the narrative drivers of the film is the attempt by government meteorologists and climate scientists to predict accurately when and how the monsoon will move across the country. In 2013 the rains are unusually heavy in Kerala and flooding hits the Prasad family who Gunnarsson has chosen to follow. But further north in the lee of the Western Ghats in Maharashtra no rain falls for the fourth year in a row. Government announcements have to be carefully timed to avoid too much stock market speculation – but the bookie in Kolkata seems able to maintain his business, betting on the rain simply on the basis of studying the clouds. Gunnarson himself provides narration. He is calm, speaking softly and asking questions but generally unobtrusive. He does, however, also hint at more probing questions.
The sequences in Mumbai inevitably mention Bollywood, with a chance for Moushumi Chatterjee to reminisce about shooting Manzil (1979) with a young Amitabh Bachchan. Also inevitable perhaps, Gunnarsson’s camera wanders through Dharavi but presents us with two very different stories in the densely-crowded slum now deluged by the monsoon. One features a man from the least advantaged of all social groups in India who has become a barrister and is making a plea in the High Court and another features people making animal sacrifices in the rain. Gunnarsson admits that he doesn’t really understand these rituals and his cinematographer Van Royko records these scenes as part of the general coverage of Mumbai during the monsoon. The final locations for the film’s narrative are the states of Assam and Meghalaya in the far North East of India. The National Park in Assam needs the monsoon rains to replenish the natural environment for its endangered species like the Indian rhino which becomes vulnerable at this time of year to poachers. Meghalaya has the great waterfalls that see the rains eventually rushing to replenish the Brahmaputra river system. At this point Gunnarsson himself is overtaken by the emotional and spiritual impact of the rains.
If I have one slight criticism, it is that the film doesn’t clarify aspects of the movement of the monsoon winds. At one point we see meteorologists recording a front moving north-westwards across the Bay of Bengal, but the impact finally comes from the South West which is why Southern Kerala is hit first. This is part of the complexity of the monsoon weather systems, with the Arabian Sea branch of the monsoon hitting first. Equally, the narrative structure of the film suggests that Meghalaya receives the rain last, but actually the town of Cherrapunji (‘the wettest place on Earth’) which appears in the film, begins to receive heavy rain in June which then peaks in July. This the ‘Bay of Bengal’ branch which picks up more moisture as it heads north-eastwards and then when it meets the Eastern Himalyas, turns back towards the rest, after unloading much of its water over Assam and Meghalaya. But it’s too much to ask the film to explain all this in detail, I think. What the film does do, quite neatly is to use small symbols to mark where each sequence is filmed.
This is certainly a documentary I would recommend. It offers visual storytelling about the impact of weather systems with a focus on personal stories. In the wider context, the monsoon can cause great damage through both flooding and drought, starvation and landslip and so on. People die from the impact and 70% of India’s rainfall occurs in the period from June to September. This film will give you a good idea why it is so important to the Indian economy and to Indian culture. The voiceover is in English with some subtitles for statements by people speaking local languages.