Category: Documentary

Home (UK 2019)

Sarah Outen with her rowing boat

Home is an unusual film and difficult to categorise. It seems straightforward enough at first as a documentary record of one woman’s ‘adventure’ over four years (2011-2015) and covering 20,000 miles. Sarah Outen has one prime objective – to complete her long journey around the world using only her own muscle power. She must be the ‘engine’ that makes her travel possible by rowing boat, kayak or bicycle. She can’t accept any lifts and if her kit fails her she must swim or walk. It’s a dangerous and exciting personal trip into the unknown.

All of this seems clear enough but the film’s tagline hints at something else when it reads ‘An outward journey inward’. This suggests that Sarah has two ‘journeys of discovery’ – one concerned with the world she encounters each day, both the environment she moves through and the people she meets, and the other the things she learns about herself from those encounters.

Sarah’s double ‘journey’ also reminds us that a documentary has a narrative just like any fiction feature and this one most resembles the film genre of the road movie. Road movies traditionally set out to find new experiences in different places and to explore how the central character changes as a result of those experiences. The road movie is the archetypal American adventure and the idea of a story that is a ‘journey’ for the central character is also an American idea with Hollywood films often presenting a ‘quest’ which the hero must undertake to reach a final goal. We might ask: “What is Sarah’s goal?” Will she know when and if she achieves it?

But narratives don’t have to be ‘linear’ and they don’t have to strive for specific goals. Sometimes the story goes full circle and the characters arrive back where they started but still changed in some way. What is important is to note that ‘documentary records’ are inevitably ‘narrativised’ – made into stories that are accessible for audiences and offer the same pleasures as fiction narratives. How will this affect Sarah’s story?

Who has taken the photo in this remote region, another lonely traveller?

In the famous spoof Western movie Blazing Saddles, the hero rides around a giant rock in the desert and discovers an orchestra playing the exciting musical score accompanying his ride on screen. It’s a brilliant way of exposing the artifice of cinema and the ways in which audiences are prepared to suspend disbelief. As Sarah kayaks along a turbulent river or cycles across the desert, how often do we stop to wonder who is using the camera? Sometimes it is Sarah herself but her options are limited. We know there must be another camera operator and a support crew. Home does in fact refer to the support and logistics crew needed to bring the kayak (‘Nelson’) or the bicycle (‘Hercules’) to the right place when Sarah arrives in her rowing boat. Sometimes we even see the crew. None of this diminishes Sarah’s achievement or takes away from the ‘authenticity’ of the documentary experience. But it does refer to a particular filmmaking practice.

Home is edited by the Canadian director Jen Randall of Light Shed Pictures. Officially she is also co-writer and director of the film.  It is often said that the meaning in films is ‘created’ in the edit suite. Home is a 92 minute film created through careful selection of shots from hundreds of hours of footage shot by nine different camera operators. Jen Randall started work on the film only after Sarah had returned.

Home is now a film but Sarah’s journey was also a blog, followed by people all round the world. The film is now on release in the UK and also winning prizes at the specialist film festivals for ‘adventure films’ like Kendal Mountain Festival and Banff Mountain Film Competition. The film’s release has been organised mainly through independent cinemas and Sarah has often appeared in person at these screenings to conduct a Q&A. Screenings are listed on the website below and the next appears to be in Peebles in January 2020. When the screenings tour is completed the film will become available on VOD.

An emotional time, as Sarah waits for oceanic storms to subside

Home is extremely well put together and the narrative works. There are many surprising moments and several relationships of different kinds that Sarah experiences over the four years. This certainly isn’t 90 minutes of only staring at seas and rivers and mountain roads – though they do feature of course. Jen Randall has said that the key ‘Eureka moment’ for her searching through all the hours of footage was when she looked at the footage of the Pacific crossing. This gave her a sense of the ‘shape’ of the narrative. It is also the most emotional and dangerous part of the whole story.

Many people say that they have been inspired by Sarah’s story and these kinds of adventures are both popular with film and TV audiences and arguably necessary for our culture. The film includes romance, friendships and Sarah’s own personal battle with mental health issues. This is a film that should get you feeling for Sarah and thinking about what she has achieved.

You can find out a great deal more on these two websites

Inland Sea (Minatomachi, Japan-US 2018)

Wai-chan, the fisherman in his 80s.

This is an engaging documentary about characters in a small Japanese fishing port. It’s long for a film of its kind, but it has an energy, the camera is often moving and the characters are interesting. Japan’s demographic of an ageing society and its experience of stagflation is indicative of where the UK and much of Europe is heading, so it’s also an important sociological insight into our futures. The good news is that in general the older people in the town seem cheerful and at ease with themselves and their situation. The exception to this rule inevitably becomes the central character and this reveals both the positives and negatives of the filmmakers’ approach.

Inland Sea is officially ‘No 7’ in the series of ‘Observations’ by Sôda Kazuhiro, the Japanese documentarist working out of New York with his producing partner Kashiwagi Kiyoko. I hadn’t come across Sôda’s work before. I think that in the UK he may be known only by those frequenting documentary or ‘non-fiction’ festivals (or strands in major festivals – this film was screened at Berlin in 2018), so I was pleased to be able to watch Inland Sea courtesy of distributors Rock Salt Releasing in the US. Most of Sôda’s previous work seems only to have streamed for 30 days on MUBI in various territories but now it is available to stream/download in the US (on Amazon, InDemand, Hoopla, Vimeo on Demand, Fandango).

Sôda trained in New York but only became interested in documentary after completing his course. He then discovered Fred Wiseman and became intrigued by his approach. If Inland Sea is typical of Sôda’s practice he is certainly a worthy disciple of Wiseman’s methods, becoming, as the subtitle to his films attests, an ‘observer’ of first the individual actions of people in their environment and ultimately of the communities and institutions in which they operate. Japan’s ‘Inland Sea’ is the body of water between three of the five main islands of Japan, Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku in South-Western Japan. The focus of this film is the small fishing town of Ushimado, one of many ‘left-behind’ towns with a rapidly ageing population as younger people leave. Perhaps as a means to invoke this idea of ‘left behind’ by ‘progress’, Sôda decided to grade the film in monochrome although it was shot in colour.

This cat seems to cope very well with life in Ushimado.

‘conversation with Sôda on MUBI’s website by K. F. Watanabe suggests that Sôda operates under a set of self-imposed rules much like the Dogme ’95 Manifesto. The ’10 Commandments’ are listed on Sôda’s own website. They stress that this is to be a sole authored (and financed) film that will proceed with no research, no script, no theme, no narration and no music. It will have long takes and shooting will continue as long as required. This means that the film’s narrative (all films have a narrative of sorts) will be dependent on who Sôda and Kashiwaga come across as they observe a community. One review I read suggested that Kashiwaga comes from Ushimado or at least the region around it, so that might mean the people they meet are not completely random. Also, Sôda has worked in the area before, making Oyster Factory in 2015. I think that he met a couple of this film’s characters on the earlier shoot. Ushimado was also a favourite location for Imamura Shohei.

Sôda and Kashiwaga work as a duo as far as I can see. They are, in a sense, in the long line of North American ‘direct cinema’ filmmakers except that Sôda does intervene and prompt, occasionally asking questions. Though he only appears as a shadow holding the camera, his partner does sometimes appear in the background. I’m not sure this pushes him into ciné vérité territory in which the filmmaker becomes a provocateur, but it does mean that this is something other than ‘only observation’. Even if neither Sôda or Kashiwaga speak, the subject of the camera’s gaze often addresses them directly and questions them or cajoles them into action.

Kumiko spends her day on the sea-front and becomes the central character of the narrative.

Inland Sea begins and ends on the seafront with the woman who becomes central, Kumiko. She’s 84 during filming and we learn something of her difficult life. She is clearly lonely but also energetic and knowledgeable about the town and Sôda’s methodology means that he engages with her, seemingly ‘because she is there’. How the audience then reads how she is presented and how she presents herself will then determine whether she comes across as symbolic of a refusal to accept inevitable decline or that she becomes the focus for a critique of a society which just regards her as another case for welfare services. The same is true for the town itself with its empty houses (“the people died”, Kumiko tells us) but also with inhabitants who have found ways to continue – as in the case of the two other major characters, Wai-chan the fisherman and Koso the owner of the fresh fish shop who buys his catch. (I found Koso the most interesting character and I enjoyed the ‘procedural’ narrative that takes the fish from the sea to the customer.) We could argue that this selection of characters makes the film ‘humanist’ and doesn’t tell us what to think, even if it does ‘direct’ us towards different lines of investigation. I wonder how you will feel when you see the final shot?

I’d like to be able to show this film and I hope someone in the UK eventually finds Sôda Kazuhiro interesting enough to consider a DVD or digital download. Below is a film festival trailer. I should point out that the music isn’t in the film. Also, as someone who eats fish I found the fishing scenes disturbing, but as a cat lover I really enjoyed the feline characters.

Behemoth (Bei xi mo shou, China-France 2015)


A ghost city

I don’t know what the symbolism of the man who we see carrying a big mirror on his back throughout the film is, but there’s no doubting the message of this incredible film. Co-writer-director-cinematography Zhao Liang has produced a modern version of Dante’s Inferno but the hell we visit is on earth. On the Mongolian steppes a gigantic open-caste mine blights the landscape and the lives of all those who work in it and live by it. As the narrator, presumably Zhao, tells us, the reference to Dante is explicit.

In the early 19th century the Romantics ‘discovered’ the natural landscape and found it ‘awesome’, in the sense that it filled them with fear. It wasn’t until urban areas became sufficiently large that the town-country opposition was created and so the countryside could be seen as a distinct entity. Behemoth, too, presents awesome landscapes but they are scary because the capitalist pursuit of profit creates absolute devastation. Pastoral images of Mongolian shepherds have the industrial mine as their backdrop, the behemoth of the title. Zhao’s images are themselves awesome in the modern sense of the word. The framing and positioning is quite extraordinary, especially when we realise that he was a ‘guerilla filmmaker’ when operating within the mine; there’s no way he would have gotten permission to film. Such is the ‘beauty’ of his cinematography that it’s comparable to the photographs of Sebastião Salgado‘s and Edward Burtynsky; the open cast mine also reminded me of Godfrey Reggio’s Powaqqatsi (US 1988).

In keeping with the astonishing compositions, the narration is poetic; it tends to deal with what we’re seeing in an oblique way, as if it is impossible to comprehend the disaster in front of us. However, he is not simply dealing in abstracts as the film progresses to focus on the people who work in the hell. One scene starts with an entirely red screen and it seems that Zhao is using an expressionist device to portray the violence done to the landscape but then shadowy shapes appear and we realise the colour is from a blast furnace with workers in close proximity. Later we see some of the unfortunates who simply stare into the camera, their faces scarred by their work. They are silent witnesses to the human cost of the rampant exploitation of the environment. They are scarred inside too as many are suffering from pneumonociosis; we see protestors demanding restitution and men lying on their death beds.

The narrative is brilliantly structured, by Sylvie Blum and Zhao, as we end in what could be one of Burtynsky’s landscapes. A deserted city is seen with tumbleweed blowing across the road. Is everyone at work? Then a litter picker runs to capture the detritus of nature and then we are told it is a ‘ghost city’, one of many that were built in China but there was no one to live in them. You couldn’t make it up: the stupidity of capitalism, in the guise of property speculation here, that is destroying the planet and its people.

I tentatively look forward to seeing Zhao’s other documentaries.

LFF 2019 #12: The Cave (Syria-Denmark-Germany-Qatar-US 2019)


Looking for God?

LFFlogo2019 A documentary set in an underground hospital regularly peppered with bombs and rockets: what’s not to like? It wasn’t as gruelling an experience as I expected because of the amazing fortitude displayed by the staff, particularly paediatrician and hospital administrator Amani Ballour. She not only has to deal with the patients, and the logistics of an under-resourced hospital in inhospitable circumstances, but also the ingrained sexism of some of her patients! The film celebrates the good in people even when they are victims of what can only be characterised as evil.

The ‘rights and wrongs’ in the world are possibly more blurred than ever as misinformation infiltrates information. The fact that this is a National Geographic presentation raises a question mark with me as America has a particular agenda in the conflict. Director Feras Fayyad was Oscar nominated for Last Man in Aleppo (Denmark-Syria, 2017), which I haven’t seen, that focused on the work of White Helmets. These appear to be engaged in criminal activities (this apparently was not the subject of Fayyad’s film); elsewhere it is suggested that they are victims of Russian propaganda . . . So although The Cave appears to be absolute authentic we should (always) be sceptical.

The documentary is primarily observational with occasional voiceover from Ballour. However, Fayyad’s use of sound is more in keeping with a fiction film as it uses a design that emphasises the immense cacophony of a military attack; brilliantly done – Peter Albrechtsen supervised 16 sound technicians according to IMDb . Matthew Herbert’s score, too, seeks to squeeze the emotion out of the spectator. These are both extremely effective but also leave question marks over the image, as if what we’re seeing isn’t enough to make us believe the terrible events. Similarly, the end credits state the film is based on Ballour’s diaries and so the observational rhetoric of the film is tempered by subjectivity; to what extent did Fayyad stage events recorded in Ballour’s diary? I’m not suggesting subterfuge (after all the source is credited) but The Cave is clearly not a straightforward presentation of Fayyad’s experiences.

Apparently 500 hours of footage was filmed, which took a year to edit. A chemical attack in Ghouma, that took place in 2013, serves as the climax. At least I think it was a chemical attack; again we must understand that misinformation is rife, for example the apparent chemical attack last year in Douma is highly contentious. I’m not saying the attack shown in the film didn’t happen; how can I know? All documentaries are representations of reality but what’s real in Syria is nebulous at best from the perspective of a cosseted westerner in a London cinema.

The observational stance the documentary takes means we learn nothing of the logistics of supplying food and medicines to the hospital. Though it is understandable why Fayyad rarely steps out of ‘the cave’, this means the film raises as many questions as it seems to answer. One telling line, from Ballour, is when she asks ‘is there a God?’ The same question had arisen in The Two Popes, that I’d seen a couple of hours earlier, with reference to the Argentinean military junta’s atrocities. The answer given by The Cave, as I read it, is ‘no’.