Monthly Archives: November 2009

Doc/fest – Notes on the Other + Men of the City

Docfest Notes on the Other Hemingway BullNotes on the Other

An essay on the nature of identity and the figure which Ernest Hemingway created around himself, Notes on the Other makes some fascinating revelations using the Pamplona bull running as a starting point for its investigation.

A photo of a man gored at the running is posited as the catalyst for what became Hemingways adventuring persona. As a tourist Hemingway never ran with the bulls, but watching a gored man dying in the gutter he was stirred to pen an article for the American press. Assuming that role of the runner on the brink of death Hemingway’s adventuring persona became separate from himself, creating an identity which continues to be aspired to and imitated by his famous lookalike club.

The film draws some forced lines between this and Hemingway’s descent into depression. Stressing that he would finally ‘blast his own face off with a shotgun’ is to poeticise matters to suit the film’s own end. Beautifully shot, the film makes little concession for its specific point of view and should be taken as just that: a single reading of a multifaceted persona.

Docfest Men of the city LloydsMen of the City

When the programmer at Docfest introduced this film as ‘Dickensian’ I was immediately drawn back to the last season of the Wire, and how such an adjective had become synonymous with over-dramatisations of squalor and human tragedy. That Men of the City then came to match those negative prescriptions is more unfortunate than it is ironic.

A study of the men that fill the financial district of London is about as de jour as a documentary can possibly be at the moment, and the filmmaker had the tremendous fortune of being embedded with the fiery hedge-fund manager David as Lehmann Brothers folded, and the whole financial world came tumbling down around him. While the tensions are palpable the whole affair boils down to a live-action version of the facepalming brokers blog. No great insight, no candid moments; just shouting and faces buried in scrunched up hands.

A quick sojourn to one of London’s few remaining trading floors, the Metals Exchange sees cookie-cut City wideboys screaming, shouting, and gor-blimeying their way through a jungle of clichés. The camera fixates on one chap, a hunting and fishing sort, and with a little prodding the subject readily admits the parallels between trading and the hunt. The rush of adrenaline, focusing the cross-hairs, obla di obla da.

We also get to meet a self-reflective street sweeper and a Bengalese street sign holder, who offer small respite to the parade of city stereotypes that come before them. Their streets-eye view of the city is interesting, but their reflections are flattened by the overbearing soundtrack which marches relentlessly throughout. Horror classic The Omen seems to be the source for most of the score, with omininous chords preluding the arrival of an apocalypse which never happens.

Docfest Men of the CityAmong all the bluster of the city boys the film does manage to find the ageing Norman; East End boy done good who deeply regrets the sacrifices he’s had to make to work in the city. A long life in the city has taken its toll on him, and he longs to breakaway as an independent insurance broker, to be his own man and to set his own terms. While he confidently brushes off the threat of redundancy that the crash has brought, he is visible shaken by matters. The uncertainty of his future and his push towards self-sufficiency leaves Norman open to the cameras, and from out of all the clichés the story of a real human being appears.

The revelation does however jar with the sections covering the exchange, the markets and notably David, whose performance is to the form of a cartoon hedge-fund manager, often drawing peals of laughter from the audience I saw it with. While it’s all fun and well sitting around lobbing rotten tomatoes at the orchestrators of the financial crash, the film’s cataclysmic soundtrack and heavily biased and over-dramatised perspective sadly preclude the few human portrait studies it finds along the way.

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Doc/fest – Bastardy + Granddad

Docfest Jack Charles Young and OldBastardy

A character portrait that stretches over 8 years is by it’s very nature quite epic in scope, yet the emotional depths that Bastardy touches upon are of a level rarely witnessed in your standard ‘follow-a-junky’ doc. An orphaned child of the ‘stolen generation,’ forcefully extracted from aboriginal communities in Australia, Jack Charles struggled to find his place in the world. A founding member of the first Aboriginal Theatre company in the seventies, Jack found a home of sorts in the embodiment of others, performing as an actor on both stage and screen and gaining certain recognition for his work.

But our introduction to Jack comes in the contemporary world, where the now old man has dipped into a half-way house to cook up his hit for the day. His expletive peppered words insist that the filmmaker shows his life up front, and that the audience sees his personal focus on the needle right from the get go. It’s his cross to bear, and the doc thankfully eschews any attempts to justify his need, or even coerce him to go straight.

The film initially stumbles around with the subject, as he looks for audiences to play guitar to, or later searching for quiet corners to bed down in. There is no grand introduction, and Jack’s past only becomes clear throughout the course of the film, at the same pace it became clear to the filmmaker following him. His cat burgling past is introduced as a chance drive around the affluent parts of Melbourne sees Jack pointing out the dozens of houses he’s burgled. ‘I never break in. I just walk in wherever’s open’ he says almost glibly ‘if there’s any confrontation, I’m out like a light.’

The subject’s charm and quick-when-not-high wit does a lot to hold the momentum of the film. His appearance varies wildly throughout the film, and intercut photos and clips from his past reinforce the mercurial nature of the man. A blur of outward identity which contrasts a resolute, but tired, voice of experience. The swathes of friends he has found and lost are only hinted at in a short montage of endless hugs, yet the focus remains on the addiction fuelled kleptomania which awkwardly gets in the way of these friendships. His eventual reflection on the one love he found in life cuts through the film in a heartrending way, evincing quite how far the film has drawn the viewer into the film.

Docfest Bastardy

A vivid sequence at the end of the film shows Jack going backwards through time in a series of police mug shots, from capture in 2003, with a photo for almost every other year right back to 1961 when Jack was caught on his first charge at the tender age of 18. His hair and beard balloon in and out over time, each cut heralding the nigh endless cycle of addiction, theft, capture, release, addiction, theft, capture, release, addiction…

Seeing him cheerily Q&A the film after the screening I saw felt like seeing a man stand naked before the audience. One particularly uncharitable commentator in Australia felt obliged to post a reflection on the internet that “Regardless of the artistic representation, the man is a criminal.” Art does of course not excuse the man, but you’d need a heart of granite to conclude such from portrait as pointed and revealing as this.

Docfest GrandadGrandad

A brief note for an incredibly brief documentary. A student project where director Scott Dawe tracks down members of his extended family to discuss his grandfather’s home movies. A mysterious woman appears in one, and the grand patriarch’s infidelity and fledgling commitment to his family are quick laid bare. Emotional interviews intercut with almost ghost-like super8 footage make for punchy if somewhat clipped film.

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Doc/fest – Sacred Places

Docfest Sacred Places 02In the incredibly crowded, and slightly myopic sphere of a genre focused film festival the sheen of every filmmaker, every doc just pushing harder and harder slowly forces everything to be viewed through a dazed and distorted lens. Agendas to the left of me, oblique subjective camera angles to the right; here I am, stuck in the middle doubting my notions of what a doc actually is.

Thank heavens then for Sacred Places: a straight, observational, old skool doc, unburdened from the responsibility of pushing an agenda, or being wholly representative (even when it says it is not). Director Jean-Marie Teno takes her camera to the streets of St Leon in French speaking Burkina Faso, where Nanema Boubakar runs a cineclub screening films to all and sundry.

The festival notes salaciously describe this as an ‘underground’ cinema, but it’s nothing of the sort, it’s just a cinema that happens to be off the main distribution circuit. It is a smallish hut, with rows and rows of benches in front of a standard TV, the size of any you might in any western living room. Boubakar rents pirated DVD’s of the latest Hollywood action and kung-fu films for the evenings, and intersperses a programme thick with Jackie Chan and Wesley Snipes with the occasional African feature he can get hold of. Despite his illegitimate status, his margins are ridiculously tight, and Boubo (as he’s called) struggles to pay rent for the small hall.

Docfest Sacred Places DjembeTo help him he enlists the support of Karo, his artisan friend who makes and plays the traditional djembe drum. He too struggles to make ends meet, but uses his talents as a musician and craftsman to find varied work as a music tutor, instrument tuner, and occasional the local troubadour/poet in the spirit of the West African Griot. In this capacity he does his friend Boubo a favour by doing the rounds, beating his drum and announcing the fine features expected at the cineclub that evening.

The status of these purveyors of culture is not raised, deified or criticized in any particular way. They are just working with the means they have, plying a trade and scraping a living with the arts that they love. When a director of one of the pirated films learns that his local cineclub is screening his films illegally the threat of high drama looms large.

But the ‘confrontation’ is left off screen, and in being interviewed after the event the director admits that he’s just glad that audiences are still being drawn to his relatively old film. He made it to be seen, it’s a shame that the pirated copy is such poor quality, but he still wishes he could make these films more affordable to the cineclubs. Exhibition is just as important as production, and cineclubs such as Boubo’s are giving new audiences the chance to find films they would otherwise be oblivious to. Boubo does of course pine after a particularly large TV, but it has less to do with his desire to present High Definition cinema, and more to do with his desire to draw more bums to his benches.

Western filmmakers/cinephiles/nerds would no doubt cry a river at the prospect of forcing 50+ punters around a 32” TV to see their widescreen, technicolour, 5.1 surround sound masterpiece, but this is cinema in one corner of the developing world. It’s not for us to say that this is or is not cinema, when droves of locals are more than willing to shell out a dime for the pleasure.

But then again, that’s the agenda I derived from the film, another point to illustrate my personal reflections on cinegoing past and present. The film itself stands well above that, and is a superb document of cinegoing in its own right.

Docfest Sacred Places 01

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Doc/Fest – RIP Remix Manifesto + Looploop

Docfest LooploopLooploop

Draw a Venn diagram with a circle for collage, art, and documentary, and you might possibly find Looploop sandwiched somewhere in the middle. A patchwork quilt which uses images to create an illusion of movement, possibly from the perspective of someone on a train, which can go both backwards and forwards. There really isn’t a lot of meat to these bones, but the film is really hypnotic none the less. But don’t take my word for it, watch it yourself:

RIP: a Remix Manifesto

There’s an open panel session here at Docfest this year titled ‘The Thin Line Between Passion and Propaganda’ and it neatly summises some of the Issues (with capital I) that I face in saying anything about this film. I could, and have previously, merrily spend a few hundred words dissecting all matters relating to copyright, copyfight, and the absurdities of modern intellectual property law. And I wish I could neatly summise that ‘the film is not the issue’ but then it is in the very way it’s constructed. Never was a film quite so demonstrative in its very fabric of the utter fallacy of current copyright legislation.

The Issue (with capital I) in question is how modern technology allows us to twist, bend, chop and remix media of any kind into just about anything we like. That and the thorny issue of whether downloading is illegal or not. Defend the rights of the artist/creative force or criminalise your average citizen. The film casts its net wide, covering everything from the patenting of medicine, mechanics and life forms, to issues of how a hundred a twenty year old staples such as ‘Happy Birthday’ can make rights holders millions and millions every year, when the writers of the song died well over half a century ago.

The film takes numerous examples, mini case studies, to illustrate some acute points about intellectual property law, as it stands. Every music anorak worth their salt knows that The Stones and Def Leppard stole all their greatest riffs from the old blues masters. What is more powerful is someone widening the scope of this analogy, audibly quoting Muddy Waters saying that he got a song from the cotton fields, which had already been published by Robert Johnson, who in turn was preceded by someone else who had already recorded the tune. That the same tune went on to be popularised by black pop musicians, who in turn were copied by the Rolling Stones just goes to demonstrate the neverending cyclical nature of things. That the Stones then sued the Verve for 100% royalties for using the tune in Bittersweet Symphony just illustrates the Western world’s attitudes to how they feel we should handle copyright even better.

Docfest Rip Remix Manifesto

The above example neatly underscores the first point of four points in the film’s titular manifesto, namely that all new culture is built on the culture that came before it. A rally call for all proponents of copyfight, it places the creative process, the reinvention of old into new, as a core tenement to usage beyond fair use. The film points to the past, and the copyright laws of old, which ensured certain copyright protection while the property was still new, but which nonetheless opened up the floor after a fixed period of 14 years. Long enough to become established, but not long enough to be exploited.

The film also boldly points towards other feasible models, such as that of Baile Funk in Brazil, which actively reinterprets, remixes and integrates well know tunes into a musical form wholly unto itself. And a nation whose school curriculum supports lessons in turntablism and beat juggling! Below the radar of most corporate rights holders of the western world, developing nations such as Brazil are casting copyright law into a new light to support emergent artists, and in the case of strictly patented HIV medicines, vastly improving the lives of those in dire need.

Docfest turntabalism class in Brazil

Throughout the film fair use, and the application free speech to use of copyrighted material in a manner with which to criticise it is put to full use. It almost lends the film a slightly agonising feel, as the project tentatively pushes harder and harder, sampling the samplers who sample freely without seeking permission. Through the fabric of fair use itself the film spins an incredibly compelling argument.

Bold, cogent and absolutely invaluable, thing doc encapsulates the passion and frustrations surrounding copyfight without being too agitprop about it all. It would be wonderful if it could find a home on broadcast networks, so all and sundry (and not just geeks like me) could look and learn from it. But that isn’t likely, so take the directors’ advice and see if you can’t just torrent it instead.

[and here’s the manifesto in full. But don’t take this at face value, go and find the film instead!]Docfest Remix Manifesto in full

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Doc/Fest – The Living Room of the Nation + Bob

It’s Doc(umenatary)Fest(ival) time in Sheffield again! My relationship with the festival has been patchy over the years, not through any acrimony but purely through my continued ability to be out of town when it’s on. But not this year! Having harangued my way to a pass I shall attempt some madcap, whistlestop overviews of the films I do manage to catch.

This will be pretty roughshod stuff, an experiment in the regurgitated opinions that festival coverage demands. The mainstream press were forced to sit through Inglourious Basterds at 08:00 in the morning in Cannes, and most only given until lunchtime to send their copy back. In circumstances such as those it’s not too surprising that Tarantino’s brash revisioning of World War 2 failed to win the old duffers over. But what happens when you apply the same ‘fresh-out-of-the-screening’ logic to a lovingly nutured independent documentary film? There’s only one way to find out:

DocFest The Living Room of the Nation

The Living Room of the Nation

Anything that claims to be ‘of the nation’ is bound to be setting itself up for a fall, swiped away by the broad brush strokes that any such overview might entail. Yet ‘Living Room of the Nation’ manages a wonderous thing in taking any preconceived notions of ‘Finnishness’ that the viewer may carry with them into the film, and then merrily skimming along said cliché with glad abandon.

Following six individuals over an unclear timeframe, the camera work sets up an extremely simple perspective: widescreen, with the frame generally covering the length of the room. Taking the very definition of fly-on-the-wall and going with it lends the film an uncanny observational tone. The Finns in focus just sit around speaking their brains when on their own, or interacting with friends and family on a level of borderline absurdity that would put Beckett, Pinter and Roy Anderson to shame. The breaking of big news seems to frequently come as a minor distraction to the hockey that seems to be permanently playing on the tv in the corner of the room/frame.

The hero/lynch-pin of the film is the expectant father Tarko, who is in permanent conflict with his emotions and his responsibilities. Scaling the whole range of emotions in one man’s life, we see him cavorting with his best buddy at the news that he to become a father, but also bearing his soul to his infant son about his worries about his crumbling relationship to the mother. Inbetween come agonisingly stifled conversations with the grandfather to be, as well as numerous slapstick interludes as Tarko bumbles about in life in a way that feels all too familiar.

The moments of profound reflection from other characters, sitting in the dark, looking out of their living rooms, might feel a touch contrived to those unfamiliar with Finns beyond the stereotypes. For those who have ever had the pleasure of raising a glass with a Finn, these instances of seemingly bottomless insight will feel more than a familiar.

Bob

Docfest BobIntimacy is a difficult thing to capture on camera, but the short doc Bob does an amazing job of making you feel like you’re practically in Bob’s armpit. Partly because for a sizeable section of the film, you are literally in Bob’s armpit.

Bob is a 90 year old communist who also happens to be nudist. We follow him as he goes through his morning routine; extensive stretching, making an elaborate fruit breakfast, and a basic scrub-up before he goes out to tend to his small garden. All completely stark naked, of course.

The nudism becomes a point in and of itself, the sharp, narrow focus camera floating over the strange curves, sags, moles and lumps you would expect to find on a 90 year old man. It’s not just a map of the life he has lived, nor is it just a motif of mortality or human fallability. It’s a strange anchor, an underscoring of quite how happy Bob is with the life he has led.

So take it from Bob: stretch, eat your five a day, don’t worry, be (politically) active), live a long life.

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