Tagged: Documentary

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’.

Algorithms (UK/India 2013)

These notes were provided for the film screening of Algorithms:

Ian McDonald is a scholar and a filmmaker based at Newcastle University. He currently teaches postgraduate modules on ‘Film Practice’. His background is in politics and sociology and he eventually specialised in the sociology of sports. Using film in his research, he began to make his own short documentary films, the first on martial arts in the Indian state of Kerala in 2007. Algorithms is his first feature-length documentary made over a period of four years.

The filmmaker’s ‘profile’ on the university’s staff pages includes this intriguing description of his approach:

“ . . . Ian’s shift to documentary filmmaking is informed by a seemingly effortless ‘way of seeing’ based on the ‘sociological imagination’. A distinctive form of film practice that refuses the boundaries between documentary, visual sociology and art can be evinced in his works”.

Algorithms has an Indian producer, Geetha J, and an Indian creative team, mostly based in Kerala. The music score is by Prasanna based in Boston and Chennai. The score uses Carnatic musicians to support guitar work in the Carnatic tradition.

Kanta struggled to find the time for chess with all his college work to do

Anant (right) struggled to find the time for chess with all his college work to do

The sports documentary
There are many documentary forms in global cinema. Documentary could be argued to be a ‘mode’ of film practice within which there are various genre narratives and approaches. The sports documentary itself takes several forms but the most popular tend to draw on Hollywood genre conventions.The characters include young people from humble beginnings who struggle to overcome barriers, the inspirational coach, the pushing parents, the unscrupulous manager, the fans etc. The narrative might be expected to include initial successes and inevitable setbacks but to finish triumphantly.

Algorithms does include some of these elements but its overall aims are quite different and its presentation of events is unique in style. Ian McDonald is interested in the relationship between sport and society and particularly the ‘sporting outsider’ – the one who is seen differently by ‘normal’ society.

The approach
The film has four central characters. The inspirational figure is Charudatta, the former blind chess champion who has retired and who now sees his mission as finding the next blind champions – who he believes will beat the best sighted players. The three teenagers he mentors and guides through international competitions are each very different characters who come from different backgrounds in different parts of India. The film shifts between the three and conveys a strong sense of place and of culture.

Darpan is from a middle-class family in Baroda, a major city in Gujarat state in Western India. Totally blind with very supportive parents his highly-organised life is contrasted with Anant, also totally blind who lives in Bhubaneswar (capital city of Odisha/Orissa on the East Coast). Anant’s family don’t have the same resources and fear that chess will interfere with his studies – necessary to get a good job. Further down the coast in Chennai, Sai Krishna is the youngest of the three. He still has some vision but it is declining inexorably. The three boys have different personalities and Charu has to be flexible in his treatment of the boys and their families.

Shooting over three years and amassing 240 hours of footage, Ian McDonald has made several strategic decisions. The footage has been processed as black and white with heightened contrast. There also seems to be a distinction between the actual chess games shown in close-up – almost abstract rather than observational – and the long-shot compositions of the tournament locations and family homes. In narrative terms, McDonald explains little (certainly about chess competitions, the rules of which the audience must glean from the footage). Instead he allows the main characters to tell their own stories through dialogues and what we see them doing. Crucially, there is no voiceover and no ‘talking heads’ who speak direct to camera.


Background on Plot for Peace (South Africa 2013)

Jean-Yves Ollivier (third from right) invites some of the major stakeholders involved in regional peace efforts to a private game farm in the Kalahari Desert, in the Northern Cape. (from http://www.plotforpeace.com/uk/gallery)

Jean-Yves Ollivier (third from right) invites some of the major stakeholders involved in regional peace efforts to a private game farm in the Kalahari Desert, in the Northern Cape. (from http://www.plotforpeace.com/uk/gallery)

Plot for Peace tells an ‘untold story’. The whole world knows that Nelson Mandela was finally freed from prison in 1990 and that in 1994, after South Africa’s first democratic elections, he became President Mandela. The apartheid regime was no more. Many people in South Africa, black and white, had struggled over many years to end the system. War in the ‘front-line states’ against the South African armed forces was a ‘hot’ feature of the Cold War during the 1980s and around the world thousands of anti-apartheid activists fought to isolate the apartheid regime. There have been many books, films and plays telling stories about individuals in the struggles and more recently about Mandela himself, but few have attempted to explain how the battle was won without a massive conflagration and the devastation of South Africa itself.

Plot for Peace tries to give a different perspective on the events of the 1980s, focusing on one man, a ‘fixer’ who was able over several years to bring together the leaders of many of the major players in the global struggle and to establish at least the possibility of a peaceful, negotiated end to apartheid. Jean-Yves Ollivier is a remarkable man who was awarded an honour by the new South African government almost without any publicity. For some of those who did know what he had done he was the mysterious ‘Monsieur Jacques’. His story has now been put together in a film narrative in which, as far as possible, Ollivier and the leading figures he worked with tell the story in their own words.

Here the filmmakers discuss how the documentary came about:

and here Jean-Yves Ollivier discusses what he thinks about sanctions and the need to negotiate in a range of other global conflicts:

Hasta siempre (UK/Cuba 2005)

Shooting on the streets of Havana

Hasta siempre is a 57 mins documentary produced by an independent group in Brixton, South London, that enables ordinary people in Cuba to speak about their lives and their hopes for the future. The format of the film is very simple. After a brief historical background, utilising some newsreel footage, the main body of the film comprises interviews with a variety of Cubans. There is a historian and a psychologist (one of five siblings who have had professional careers in the years since the revolution) but also older people, mothers and children, youths and middle-aged people. Two things are striking about the interviews. Firstly, most of those interviewed are Afro-Cuban. This not surprising given that the filmmakers are (I assume) from Brixton’s African-Caribbean community (or have been chosen by Brixton producers). But it does mean that this documentary corrects the under-representation of Afro-Cubans in Cuban films generally. Secondly, the interviewees are not hand-picked as supporters of the revolution. Some are critical of current conditions – others very pleased for what they have got. The most telling interviews are those in which a youth first tells us all about the problems and just when you think he’s about to say that he wishes he was in America, he asserts that he never wants to be anywhere else but Cuba. Generally, the people interviewed seem very sussed and very aware of what is at stake in Cuba and what they would lose if the current situation changes. Even some of those who are critical recognise the realities of the situation. The main negative comment is that people can’t travel and visit the US, UK, Jamaica etc.

Overall, this is a limited view of aspects of Cuban reality, but I would recommend it as an informative documentary which made me more optimistic than pessimistic about the future for Cuban socialism. The DVD is available from Rice ‘n Peas and sells in the UK for £10 – you can see extracts from the film via the link. It’s available in other currencies as well.

This YouTube clip shows the start of the film (to get a sense of how the interviews work, go to the Rice ‘n Peas page above.