This film featured in the Cinema Versa section of the Leeds International Film Festival: it is also the first film featuring in a Palestine Film Festival in Leeds. It provided an auspicious start. The film is extremely well made, offers an imaginative combination of techniques, has a funny but also sad narrative and a strong political content.
The basic story occurred in the First Palestinian Intifada; importantly before the signing of the Oslo Accords and the setting up of a Palestinian Authority in the lands occupied by the Israel. The small village of Beit Sahour was involved in a boycott of Israeli products and in a tax boycott. As part of this the people invested in 18 cows, bought from a kibbutznik. The people learned how to care for the cows and commenced providing Intifada milk. But the Israeli authorities, concerned about the example this set during the Intifada declared the cows a “threat to the national security of the state of Israel”. So a cat and mouse struggle developed as the Palestinians tried to protect their livestock and maintain their action.
The film uses an ingenious combination of documentary interviews with those involved in the events, archival footage, drawings, black-and-white stop-motion animation [Claymation] as well as re-enactments. One of the most enjoyable parts of the animation are the four cows – Rikva, Ruth, Lola and Goldie – who are voiced by performers. Originally somewhat Zionist and looking down on the Palestinians, they become part of the village and victims along with the Palestinians.
The politics of this story are often quite subtle, though the oppressive Israeli actions are clearly depicted. The import of a struggle waged by ordinary Palestinians under direct occupation is emphasised, as is the intelligent and collective action in which they are involved. There are bitter comments on how the later Oslo Accords disempowered ordinary Palestinians in the struggle. (Check out Al Jazeera’s The Price of Oslo).
The key player in the film was Amer Shomali, brought up in exile, but later returning to his home village, Beit Sahour. His initial ideas were supported by Montreal-based producer Ina Fichman and then by the co-director on the film, Canadian Paul Cowan, who also scripted the film.
The film is certainly at times very witty, but it is also very moving. The courage and inventiveness of the Palestinians is impressive, whilst the members of the Israeli occupation are remarkably honest about their motivations and actions. The film got a warm response from the audience who filled the Town Hall’s Albert Room. The film is marketed by the National Film Board of Canada, that auspicious institution responsible for many fine documentaries.
The Palestinian Film Festival, organised by Leeds Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, continues into December. Meanwhile this film remains a really worthwhile 75 minutes, if you can catch it. It is in colour and the Arabic, English, Hebrew and French soundtrack is covered by English subtitles. (Co-produced by Palestine, Canada and France 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.”
Joxean Lasa and Joxi Zabala were two 20 year-old Basque activists living as refugees in France in 1983 when they were kidnapped by Spanish Guardia Civil officers in plain clothes and taken back to San Sebastian where they were tortured in secret. Eventually they were taken across Spain to the hills of Alicante where they were shot and buried in quick lime. This was one of the first actions associated with GAL, the officially-sanctioned Spanish ‘anti-terrorist’ squad. The bodies were discovered but not identified in 1985 and it was 1995 before a local Alicante Police Commissioner re-opened the case after reading a newspaper story about GAL.
Director Pablo Malo’s film has been described as a ‘docudrama’ as he constructs a narrative which parallels the ensuing legal investigation in 1995 and the re-constructed events of 1983. This is very definitely a powerful film, from the rapid editing of the title graphics and the dramatic orchestral score through to the scenes of torture and murder which I found impossible to watch at times (the film has an advisory ’18’ certificate). The narrative begins with a brief local radio studio scene which attempts to represent some kind of ‘truth and reconciliation’ scenario. When it flashes back to the French city of Bayonne and the kidnapping and murders of a whole group of ETA activists it seems that it will be a story from the Basque Nationalist perspective. The dialogue offers a mixture of Basque and Castillian Spanish. The ‘balancing’ forces in the narrative are the presence of the Alicante investigator and the statements about the high numbers of police and army assassinations carried out by ETA (in 1983 the Guardia Civil claim that at least 48 such killings took place). Nevertheless, the lead character is the Basque lawyer Iñigo played by Unax Ugalde, who in 1995 agrees to pursue a private prosecution on behalf of the dead men’s families.
The ¡Viva! brochure suggests that the director drew inspiration from Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father, Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda and Bloody Sunday by Paul Greengrass. Certainly there is a parallel between the Irish and Spanish struggles and the reconstructions of events but I was reminded more strongly of a film like Battle of Algiers in terms of the torture scenes and the attempted even-handedness and of other Spanish and Argentinian films in terms of the ‘disappearance’ of activists. There is a seemingly deliberate ploy in the script to balance Iñigo’s partisan lawyer with the brilliant young legal specialist Fede who is hired to do the paperwork and to find the links and the weaknesses in witness statement. Iñigo Gastias, the young actor who plays Fede has a very innocent-looking face and when he challenges Iñigo it is difficult not to be affected by his sense of what is ‘right’. While the narrative never actively supports the actions of the Spanish state, it does work hard to raise questions about how justified the Basque activists are in their approach to the investigation.
A title card at the beginning of the film tells us that most of the characters are the ‘real’ historical characters and that the others are based on similar historical characters who have been ‘fictionalised’ for dramatic effect. I certainly found the story convincing. End credits told us what happened to the police officers (and local governor) who were prosecuted and how long they actually served in prison – which didn’t seem very long.
The visual style of the film is based on a preponderance of tight close framings with fast-cutting for action scenes. At the start of the film it did take me a few moments to adjust, following the action and trying to read the subtitles that were on the screen for only a brief moment. Playing on the biggest screen at HOME at this space made for a riveting opening but I think that it could alienate audiences without much knowledge of the geography and the political struggles of the Basque country. When the title ‘Baiona’ came on screen it took me a few moments to realise that this was Bayonne and that we were in France (Wikipedia tells me that this is the Gascon name for the city).
The film has generated interest (and I presume controversy) in Spain after a modest cinema release and has also been seen in festivals internationally. I believe it is on Netflix in North America. It doesn’t attempt to explain anything about the politics of Basque nationalism but as a crime procedural/courtroom drama it works very well with strong performances and crisp presentation of the story. I wish I had been able to attend the introduction to this film on Saturday and the Q&A with the director that followed the Saturday screening.
Trailer with English subs:
Suffragette is doing OK in UK cinemas. In my local cinema it was in the smaller screen with the Bond movie downstairs in the larger screen but there was still a healthy audience and I lost my preferred seat. My impression is that UK critics have been kinder to the film than those in North America (some of which have been very strange – though as Meryl Streep pointed out at the LFF Press Conference, many Americans won’t know what the title means). A note of caution however, the film was given a saturation release on over 500 screens and it fell 56% in its second week, suggesting that it might not have the ‘legs’ for a long run. The figures for the third weekend will be interesting. Suffragette has already made £5.8 million in the UK so does the box office trend mean much?
The positive about Suffragette is that audiences have the opportunity to see it all over the UK (and Ireland). For younger audiences it may prove to be an important history lesson at a time when there appears to be a feminist revival but the dreadful state of the UK school curriculum means that rates of political literacy are low and the events leading up to partial suffrage for women in the UK in 1918 are not necessarily widely known. The film has been well-promoted and overall it delivers. The central idea of constructing the narrative around the gradual consciousness-raising and politicisation of a single working-class character in an East London works well. Carey Mulligan as Maud is totally convincing. It’s great to have seen her in two British films this year and she is now perhaps the leading star actor of her generation in the UK. It’s also good to see all the creative opportunities for the likes of writer Abi Morgan, director Sarah Gavron and the many women in the crew as well as Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham-Carter and Natalie Press as fellow activists.
I’ve not heard too many people say that they ‘enjoyed’ Suffragette, although several have said how impressive it is, how worthwhile, even how inspiring. I did find it impressive up to the final act that we knew was coming – Emily Davidson’s fatal attempt to catch hold of the King’s horse in the Epsom Derby of 1913. Whereas the earlier scenes seemed manageable in terms of the film’s chosen aesthetic – a muted palette of greys and blues for Eduard Grau’s camera and relatively tight framing of small scenes of action – Epsom in summer sun and the toffs in colourful clothes didn’t seem to work. It felt as though the budget couldn’t stretch to a full-scale crowded racetrack and I wondered if something more abstract might not have worked better – a slow motion sequence perhaps. Afterwards I wondered whether a different event such as the slashing of the Rokeby Venus painting in 1914 might not have been a better bet as a climactic event. As it is the funeral of Emily Davidson is represented by carefully presented ‘topical’ footage reframed from archive material. Maud is a fictional creation so it doesn’t matter what she witnessed. The other characters are mainly either ‘historical’ or based on historical characters.
I’m surprised that Meryl Streep allowed her image to be used so blatantly in the film’s promotion. She plays Emmeline Pankhurst but has only a few minutes of screen time. There are many other actors who could have performed the role and who would not have been displayed on the poster, displacing Anne-Marie Duff. The point here is that this is not a film about the middle-class suffragettes but about the foot soldiers of the movement (see Sarah Gavron’s statements in the clip below). I hope that there will be discussions about which stories appear in the film. I’ve seen North American reviews that claim that the film focuses on the middle-class activists and that this is a kind of ‘heritage film’ – but neither charge is justified. Politically, one of the most interesting aspects of the script is the links that are made to Irish independence struggles (in which women also played important roles). I’m not sure about the surveillance cameras that are used in the film (presumably this was researched?) but the presence of Brendan Gleeson as an Irish police Inspector who utilises the same methods in investigating suffragette activity as he had previously used with ‘Fenian’ activists seems an astute point. I hope that audiences make the connections between the ways in which the British state historically treated suffragettes and Irish republicans. The British state seemed to learn nothing from the treatment of hunger strikers in 1913 when it came to the treatment of internees such as Bobby Sands in 1981.
Of all the reviews I’ve seen, the best is by Graham Fuller on theartsdesk.com. I realise that we independently came to similar conclusions but he expresses them more eloquently – though he also describes the plot in some detail, so beware. The Film 4 featurette below is an excellent resource with Sarah Gavron, Abi Morgan and Anne-Marie Duff and clips from the film. I’m still staggered by the lack of historical knowledge shown by these three (and Carey Mulligan in other interviews) before they started work on the project. I’m sure this was on our school syllabuses in the 1960s, but perhaps I read it all somewhere else? What I certainly didn’t know was that the police surveillance files of the period became available to the public in 2002. But really we shouldn’t be surprised by what the state would do to confront any form of democratic challenge. This is an important film that everyone should see.