The Divide (UK 2015)

Keith

Keith

This documentary was screened at the Hyde Park Picture House and followed by a Q&A with the director, Katherine Round. The film is ‘inspired’ by the best-selling The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (2009). There was an audience of around 200 for the event. This is probably partly due to the topicality of the central issue in the film: inequality. But also Katherine Round studied at Leeds University.

This is a powerful documentary with telling effects and arguments. But I felt that it also had severe limitations. To start with the virtues. The core of the film is the presentation of the part-stories and situations of seven people living in either the USA or UK.

Alden, a New York psychologist whose clients include Wall Street Bankers. He is affluent but works long hours and so has a diminished family life.

Leah is an Afro-American single mother in Virginia and she works in a Kentucky Fried Chicken diner.

Jen and her husband live in a gated’ community. They seem less affluent than their neighbours and appear isolated. Their income is unclear.

Janet and her husband ran a video store which failed. She now works for Al-Mart in Louisiana.

Rochelle is a care worker in Newcastle-on-Tyne. Her pay is low and her hours demanding. She has difficulty feeding and clothing her children.

Darren lives on an estate in Glasgow where poverty and unemployment are endemic. He has problems with addictions.

Keith is in a California Penitentiary. he fell foul of the ‘three strikes’ rule.

We meet and hear the seven several times and learn something of their situation and their lives. We also occasionally hear the interviewer Katherine Round. Alden and Jen seem somewhat dissatisfied with their lives. Leah is more buoyant about life and Janet is active in the union. Rochelle is hard-pressed to cope. Darren’s life is very problematic but he has some hopes. Whilst Keith, after seventeen years in jail, is extremely oppressed.

The interviews and film of these subjects is intercut with comments by professionals and academics. Among these we see and hear well-known names such as the author Richard Wilkinson, Noam Chomsky and Ha-Joon Chang. There are clips of political leaders like Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and [briefly] Tony Blair at his most fatuous.

These are accompanied by archive films and television footage. They come from key years between 1979 (UK) and 1981 (USA) and the present. This is part of an argument regarding changes in the way these modern capitalist societies are organised, in particular the growing disparity between the bulk of the population and an extremely rich élite. The now familiar argument is made about how the élite, through their influence on political power, are able to not only defend but to aggrandise their share of the national cake.

The film is well shot by cinematographer Woody James. there are some excellent framing of subjects, especially Keith in the penitentiary. The editing by John Mister is extremely effective as it crosses time, the USA and the Atlantic. And the team of sound recordists have blended a variety of voices, noises and effects to good purpose, with much of the accompanying music offering a blues tone.

There were however for me serious limitation in this film. Katherine Round has worked on many documentaries for Television and I found the films’ form somewhat conventional. The film of and interviews with the subjects work very well, though the subjects do not get an equal amount of time. And the commentative voices do seem a little like ‘talking heads’. Noam Chomsky, for example, appears a couple of times with only one or two sentences: and he is not known for his brevity. Some of the illustrative material, like the adverts, feel like the visual spots in the news, filling space rather than informing. And the identification of voices or footage is not consistent. I thought that some film of the subjects could have been older footage, but this was not clear.

In terms of the inspiration by The Spirit Level, the film does not follow the book, which was very much a presentation of research. This is a more poetic vision. However, I think this approach does not present all of the book’s view. In the Q&A one audience member remarked on the absence from the film of the ‘top one percent’. Round suggested that all of the subjects were in some sense disadvantaged and therefore dissatisfied. I thought that was in the film but the sense of the oppressiveness of lives for the most exploited was much clearer. And the idea behind this ignores the way that economic impacts are more fundamental than psychological ones.

Part of the problem is that the film does not have a clear sense of class. There is a lack of economic data on the subjects. We learn that Alden gets 1500 dollars for treating clients, but we do not learn about the income of the others. In Jen’s case it is not clear where her family income comes from. Rochelle confesses to having to buy food and clothes on her credit card as she waits for payday. Leah and Janet have their own houses apparently, whilst Rochelle and Darren appear to live in council hosing. But otherwise we are left in the dark.

In fact the film spends more time on housing than income or wealth. There is more material on ‘gated communities’ than other aspects. This seems to relate to the role of ‘sub-prime mortgages’ in the 2008 crash. The analysis in the film is limited in other ways. The main argument concerns changes in the advanced capitalist economies since the 1980s. An argument that has moved centre stage since the 2008 crash. But there appears to be an unexpressed acceptance of the capitalist mode of production. A venture capitalist defends his ‘wealth making’ without challenge. Several speakers talk of how things have ‘got out of hand’. And a couple, including Chomsky, refer to the ‘unregulated market’ and that we no longer all ‘play by the same set of rules’. The anarchy of the market is at the centre of capitalism but the fundamental aspect of this mode of production is the commodity and the way that the value created in it by labour power is expropriated by the capitalist class. On the platform with Katherine Round was an equality campaigner [whose name I did not catch]. He referred to the minimum wage: a valid defensive tactic but not one that changes the fundamentals. There was no sense of the arguments by Marx and Engels that the basic mechanism of this society leads to expropriation and so inequality.

Moreover the historical view in the film is extremely limited. So it fails to draw any parallels with the 1929 crash and The Great Depression. One could tell seven stories from the 1930s that parallel those in The Divide and here we are again. [CBS documentary Meltdown: The Global Financial Collapse series draws the comparison]. And the realisation that it is a fundamental issue predates Marx and Engels. A hundred years earlier Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in The Social Contract, or Of the Social Contract, or Principles of Political Right (Du contrat social ou Principes du droit politique; 1762) that what was required was that

“no citizen is rich enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself.”

Even so the film is worth seeing, because there is not that much critical material around. It screens again at the Hyde Park on April 27th and it will screen at Picturehouse at the National Media Museum on May 31st.

¡Viva! 22 #4: Juntos y revueltos: El Mejunje de Silverio (Cuba-Spain 2014)

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A drag artiste performing at El Mejunje

The title of this documentary in English is something like ‘Together and Blended’, but the official English title is Side by side, eye to eye, which doesn’t seem to mean quite the same. The second part refers to ‘El Mejunje’, a cultural centre/club based in a former hotel donated to the community by the Cuban government. The club offers children’s shows, rock concerts and other forms of light entertainment and it is also a meeting place for the local LGBTQ community in Santa Clara, a city of 250,000 people in Central Cuba.

Spanish director Nicolás Muñoz Avia has produced a 66 minute account of the club and its members divided into nine sections or ‘ingredients’ as the English subs call them. These refer in different ways to ideas about self-worth, relationships and community, expressed through titles like ‘self-love’, ‘mother’s love’, ‘lovesick’ etc. We are introduced to a range of characters, each of whom we see in observational mode with friends and family, but also as ‘witnesses’ to the activity of the club, speaking directly to camera. Finally, we get to see some of these characters performing in the clubs walled courtyard (see above). In addition, there are several more formal interviews with people who give us deeper background on the club. The image quality of the film is good. The soundtrack is a little rougher at times, but perfectly serviceable.

The various club members/visitors include a local trans performer who is the first officially elected local government representative of the community, a rock band and a dance band of older players, a couple of schoolgirls, an older lesbian couple and a local man who is an alcoholic and who relies on the club and community to look out for him. This latter episode involves ‘tough love’ by the club who ban the man for a week and urge him to clean up his act (club members have already cleaned out his room for him). There is another family group with some ‘issues’ about a feckless young man but on the whole this is not an exposé or a sensationalist reality TV type of documentary. Instead it is a relatively conventional doc about a cultural centre that gives potentially marginalised groups a social space. What was most striking for me was to see a portrait of Cuba without either tourists or the set agenda of many reports that always seem ready to criticise or undermine (this is especially true of some reports on the BBC and in the supposedly left-leaning Guardian newspaper). The documentary here stresses the official sanction/donation of the building and several of the organisers profess their solid support for the revolution, perhaps over-emphasising this when a performance takes place in front of the national flag and portraits of Fidel and Che (which don’t appear on other clips of the club on YouTube). On the other hand, when a revolutionary speech plays on the PA during a performance, the younger members of the audience look bemused or indifferent. It’s telling too that a young guy in a rock band tells us that he’s just spent all his money to keep his amp working. “What else can we do?” he says, “We just want to play our music”.

It’s good that this portrait of Cuban life doesn’t come to us from Havana (though the opening images do – the film starts on the Malecon) because it gives us a different sense of Cuban society. With recent visits by the Pope and Barack Obama, the question of Cuba’s future comes ever more into the spotlight, so I hope this film gets more outings in Europe and North America as well as Latin America. This was its official UK première – another first for ¡Viva!

Useful trailer (but no English subs):

¡Viva! 22 #3: L’adopció (Spain-Lithuania 2015)

Natalia (Nora Navas) and Dani (Frances Garrido)

Natalia (Nora Navas) and Dani (Frances Garrido)

This is a very accomplished film that I found disturbing to watch, especially since the director and co-writer was present – and the story was inspired by her own experiences. Daniela Féjerman answered questions after the screening (the UK première) when around half the audience stayed on and raised a wide range of questions. The film carries a strong emotional punch and the questioners were generally very supportive.

The ‘adoption’ of the title is set in motion by a Spanish couple, Natalia (Nora Navas) and Daniel (Francesc Garrido), who arrive in an unnamed East European country where they are met by an intermediary who they have paid to help them adopt a child under 3 years-old. The process they must go through is bureaucratic and extremely stressful – not helped by the fact that it is Christmas (with offices closed and family rituals) and very cold. It soon transpires that they need the intermediary for more than just interpreter duties – is she to be trusted? At the beginning of the narrative Natalia and Dani appear to have a strong loving relationship, but as the adoption process begins to hit all kinds of snags and they are faced with extremely difficult decisions, the two react in different ways and their relationship begins to suffer. In an interview with Cineuropa, Féjerman describes the film as “like a Christmas tale told by Kafka” – which seems a very good description of the narrative as well as of the real problems of producing the film.

The production had three Spanish companies, two Lithuanian companies and support from tvE (the Spanish public service broadcaster) and took several years to put together. It was a multiple language film – the Spanish language dialogue sections being shot twice with the second version in Catalan. L’adopció is the Catalan title. The film is also known by the international English title Awaiting. The Castilian Spanish title is La adopción. This is one of the increasing number of European films in which people from different European countries must speak English in order to negotiate bureaucracies. And this in turn creates divisions since the ability to speak a second (or usually third) language denotes either a good education or opportunities to travel and/or work abroad. The film uses Spanish/Catalan, English, Lithuanian, Russian and Italian. The local actors are mainly very experienced Lithuanian theatre actors (everything was shot in Lithuania). The English dialogue seemed to me very impressive and I was slightly surprised that though she introduced herself in English, Daniela Féjerman (herself Argentinian) answered questions via an interpreter. It says much for Ms Féjerman’s directorial skill that she accomplished so much on a multilingual shoot.

I said at the beginning of this post that I found the film disturbing. By this I mean that the film provokes strong audience responses which will be different for each audience member. I could certainly identify with the Spanish couple and I did indeed think about how I would react faced with the same circumstances and difficult decisions I was reminded of similar stresses on my travels, but associated with less important decisions. The two central performances are excellent. It took me some time to realise that Nora Navas had appeared in a previous ¡Viva! festival screening, Tots volem el millor per a ella (We All Want What’s Best For Her, Spain 2013). She was excellent in that role as well. I liked Natalia whereas I gradually began to turn against her husband. The central issue is international adoption as a practice. Personally, I find the whole idea problematic, but I appreciate that for some couples it becomes their only viable option for a child. In this case there is also the issue of making out that a whole country is corrupt – from the baggage-handlers at the airport, through civil servants and the medical profession to relatives who might view children as ‘for sale’ to people from Western Europe with money to spend. The latter point works both ways – why shouldn’t they earn extra money while seeing the child have a ‘better’ future in the West? In this case, Daniela Féjerman told us that the story was based on her own experiences adopting a child from Ukraine and that the circumstances in her film are commonplace – or so the Spanish Embassy told her. I’m not sure what my reaction was to that announcement. She also said that the Lithuanian production partners were happy with the script. The country isn’t named and in fact doesn’t allow international adoption. The titles do, however, announce the co-production.

One of the more expressive shots during the adoption process – the couple are watching a doctor with a child through a window.

One of the more expressive shots during the adoption process – the couple are watching a doctor with a child through a window.

But this is a fiction film narrative and much depends on how we might classify the film. On the whole, the film presents itself as a social drama, focusing on the adoption process and what it means for the participants. There are moments of wry humour and moments of heightened emotion about the couple’s relationship such as when they dance to a romantic Italian song in a Vilnius bar. The bar has Murphy’s stout on tap, but does it have Italian songs on a jukebox? Mostly, however, the approach is social realism with rather muted and cold cinematography making some kind of  ironic comment about the emotional stress for the couple during the Christmas period. It’s small things like this which made me think about melodrama. In the Cineuropa review Féjerman tells us:

“it was essential to maintain a certain tone: I had to prevent it from becoming melodramatic, which I was tempted towards, and it’s something that could easily have happened. I had such a brutal vision of the experience that I just couldn’t make a movie with violins playing in the background, because there were certainly none to be heard there.”

I suspect that I don’t have the same ideas about melodrama as this director. I understand what she is saying, but during the film she includes scenes and lines of dialogue which hint at typical relationships within a family. We never find out what Natalia and Dani do for a living, but we do know that Natalia has a father who is a high status and wealthy doctor and that Dani is perhaps affected by this. We also wonder what has happened in the couple’s attempts to conceive. I can see  that it is difficult to decide how much back story to give to the central characters, but the narrative does offer the potential of two intertwined stories, one about the adoption and one about the marriage. This could be a melodrama with Natalia as its centre without resorting to the violins that the director worries about. The film actually has a carefully worked score and includes children’s songs as well as the Italian song described above.

L’adopció is certainly a film to talk about and others will feel differently about the issue of international adoption and about melodrama. As far as I am aware the film has only been released in Spain (in both Catalan and Castilian) and up till now only in Spanish festivals. It deserves a wider audience and we should thank ¡Viva! for bringing it to the UK. L’adopció plays again at ¡Viva! on Thursday April 21 at 18.20.

International trailer (with English subs):

The Hateful Eight 70mm Road Show

the-hateful-eight

I saw this, not in Edinburgh or London, but in Barnsley at the Parkway Cinema. This is one of four Parkway Cinemas and it is sited right in the middle of town just opposite the Travel Hub. You can get there from Leeds in about 45 minutes [sometimes longer] by road and around the same amount of time by train and bus. The cinema was originally an Odeon outlet, and the interior architecture is recognisable. Now there are two screens. Screen 1 is the converted balcony. Screen 2 is the original auditorium and seats about 400. It is fairly spacious with comfortable seats and plenty of room.

The management, clearly possessing get up and go, arranged a booking with the Entertainment Distributors for the film and set about converting for 70mm. They even adjusted the masking to accommodate the 2.76:1 ratio of Ultra Panavision 70. In fact we had a short introduction before the feature explaining the conversion, lots of hard work. We also had a digital copy of an old Cinerama Trailer: nearly the same aspect ratio.

The 70mm print was in good condition with only a few scratches. It looked fabulous, especially the exterior shots. This really is the top end of cinema viewing with the highest resolution you can enjoy.

This is Quentin Tarantino’s eighth feature and it is the best since Kill Bill Vol 1 (2003) or even Jackie Brown (1997). It is typical in many ways of Tarantino’s work. So it has a host of references to earlier westerns, but at the same time there is an overlap with Reservoir Dogs (1992). This is both in terms of some of the casting but also of the plot. There are secrets and revelations and characters soon turn out to be rather different from how they appear. There is an amount of blood and gore, but mainly in the second part.

Tarantino and his team have produced a good facsimile of the classic Road Show presentations. There is an overture, and intermission and something like 20 more minutes of film that in the digital release. The first part sets up the characters and stories and runs just on a hundred minutes. The twelve minute intermission is followed by the final eighty minutes. Here there is not only more gore, but more action and some tricky plotting. It might seem a little convoluted, though less so than the review of the film in Sight & Sound.

The greatest pleasure in the film is the cinematography by Robert Richardson: think of The Aviator (2004). From comments I had supposed that the film was predominately interiors. However, there are frequent and beautifully composed landscapes. The snowy setting rivals The Revenant (2015). One has to think back five decades for earlier Ultra 70mm features: say The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) or Khartoum (1966). It is a great format. Besides the quality of the image there is the width of the perspective. The opening shots as a coach ploughs through snow by a weather worn Crucifix looks great. But equally, interiors and close-ups, including one of Jennifer Jason Leigh, are terrific. At times it was a pleasure  just watching the folds and hues of faces: the props and furnishings of the sets: and the wintry scapes.

The casting is good. I especially enjoyed Samuel Jackson’s ex-Major. The film is tricky with characters, as the plot progresses one has to revise one’s ideas of who are the key characters of the title. The whole production design and supporting crafts are excellent. And there is also the pleasures of a Morricone score: at times very familiar but also for certain sequences quite distinctive.

The film has been criticised for not being epic, and so not justifying the length or the format. I think this is a misnomer. It does not offer the gravitas of The Fall of the Roman Empire, but it has more character and more complexity than Khartoum. Black people and women do come off rather badly, especially on the receiving end of violence. But this is partly the period in which the story is set. I did think that the liberal use of ‘nigger’, [as in Django Unchained, 2012] was partly down to Tarantino’s delight in teasing/provoking the audience.

Anyway it is some time since I spent three hours in the cinema with so much pleasure. The good news is that The Parkway is providing additional screenings: on Sunday evening April 17th; then on Monday and Thursday evening and Wednesday afternoon. Worth the trip. Apparently they have had film buffs from as far afield as Bournemouth.