Tag Archives: Documentary

At Doc/Fest: The Confessions of Thomas Quick

Has the moment arrived to call time on Scandi-noir? The new release of The Confessions of Thomas Quick might be the film where the concept finally reaches its breaking point. A documentary about a huge travesty of Swedish justice, the film unquestioningly plays out a true-crime story in the register of Scandi-noir in a deeply problematic manner. Playing fact against fiction the film switches constantly between straight talking-head testimonies and hammy crime recreations. For the un-initiated the story plays out along the familiar beats of a wintry crime drama, but as someone who has grown-up with the story unfurling over the last twenty years the whole sat very ill. To use an extreme comparison, imagine the story of the Moors murders retold as a hard-boiled Film Noir, intercut with uncritical testimonies from Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, and well, you start getting an idea of why this film felt so disturbing to this poor half-Swede.

Sture Bergwall som ung

The tale is that of the titular Thomas Quick, the assumed pseudonym of Sture Bergwall, who grew in horrific infamy during the 1990s as Sweden’s first high profile serial killer. While incarcerated in a high security mental facility in 1993 Quick started confessing to a string of murders, 30 in total of which eight led to trial and conviction. He was the boogeyman your friends warned you about, the kiddie-snatcher with the weird name and the creepy glum face. A known figure locked away for good, he dropped out of the spotlight but remained in the public consciousness all the same. That is until the whole story unravelled in December of 2008, when Sture Bergwall retracted his story on national TV, and admitted to fabricating every one of his confessions.

The absurdity of this dramatic twist is that the Swedish justice system had managed to secure convictions against Bergwall based on little more than his testimony. Countless observers had criticised the process, especially since Bergwall was unable state where he had buried the bodies, or give any evidence which only the killer could know. Instead he was held up as the examplar of a particular kind of serial killer, whose behaviour chimed in with an elaborate theory established by the team of psychiatrists treating him. The problem was Bergwall had worked out what his therapists wanted to hear, and he spent the better part of ten years playing along every step of the way.

Sture Bergwall som Gammal

The documentary is built around the candid testimony of Bergwall himself, and he is quite clear that the pay-off for his elaborate lie was a heightened degree of psychiatric attention, and a ramped up prescription of sense deadening drugs. For an attention-starved recovering addict, this reward far outstripped the risk of lying, and so he became incredibly adept at playing along with the head psychiatrist’s pet theory. Reflecting on the process almost twenty years after the event Bergwall’s personal testimony is unnerving and astute, and there is a delicious irony in the redeemed killer psycho-analysing the psychiatrists who fundamentally failed him as a patient.

The scale of the lie and the institutional failings behind this travesty shook Sweden when it first came to light, and a straight re-telling of the story would be enough to hold anyone’s attention. Sadly the filmmakers didn’t think so, as the film plays out with bridging sections of dark, wintry scenes, swelling moody music, and the bleak colour palate of ever Scandinavian crime series of the last ten years. Bergwall’s back story, an important element in understanding the motivations behind the troubled figure, are recreated onscreen but still play out like the deleted scenes from an episode of Wallander. Somehow Bergwall is both a character ripped from the pages of crime fiction, while also being the institutionalised victim of a self-perpetuating psychological myth. The film flits between wanting to condemn Bergwall, but also giving him enough screentime to let him charm the viewers, to win our sympathy for his plight.

Sture Bergwall on Twitter

The documentary struggles to make sense of the figure that Bergwall has become, and the unquestioning space, and sympathy that the film affords him is deeply problematic. The serial killer that never was is portrayed as the real victim, but what justice is there for the parents of the children whose murders Bergwall cruelly claimed and later disowned? The catharsis of the film is seeing Bergwall reconciled with his once estranged brother, surveying a glorious Nordic landscape, and making plans for the future and the new life as a free man. A life alone, away from the spotlight you might think, but if you’re curious to see how he’s doing then go find him on twitter @sturebergwall. Pictures of said Nordic landscapes, retweets from the filmmakers premiering the film, the odd link to a positive review. A serial killer no more, but no less a media figure for that, the film’s complicity in pandering to his ego with the romantic trappings of Scandinavian noir remains deeply disturbing and more than a little problematic.

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At Doc/Fest: Circus Dynasty

The show must go on. The old show business truism never fades, and the old promise is as much a cry of resilience as it is an affirmation of the status quo. From the performer gritting their teeth and riding through the pain, to the notion that the traditions of circus must live on, a quiet note of defiance holds across both. In the documentary Circus Dynasty we see this truism first-hand, and are allowed to witness the tireless momentum which carries these performers forward in life, despite the many trials they face in their chosen profession.

CassellyFamilyDocFestCircusDynastyAt the heart of the doc we find the young couple of Patrick Berdino and Merrylu Casseley, the oldest children of two respected circus families working out of Denmark. While Patrick is being lined up to inherit the ringmaster role from his grandfather, Merrylu has made a name for herself as a spectacularly agile animal acrobat. Together they have devised a spectacular act, where Patrick throws Merrylu around himself, while riding on the back of two harnessed horses. The film showcases such staggering acts, and despite their breath-taking qualities, it’s the human drama which shines above all else. Like watching spinning plates in a shooting gallery, as the circus patriarchs admire their love-bird prodigies perform in the ring, beaming at the box-office potential, you just feel the weight of the crash that’s coming. With their families futures unrealistically put on the shoulders of two 19 year olds, you don’t have to be a fortune-teller to know the relationship cannot last.

PatrickBerdinoDocfestCircusDynastyWhile the split happens off camera, countless sparks fly between the two youngsters, and the parents stand by glum faced as the rift slowly starts to pull the families apart. But the show must go on, and so it does. Despite kicks from horses, despite awkward falls off grown elephants, the tears are always held behind the scenes, and ringside they always put on their firmest smiles and their best performances. Only once do the cameras capture the facade crumbling, when in a moment of jealous fury Patrick calmly walks up to Merrylu and starts sniping at her as she sells programmes to the audience. The scene is caught in medium shot, in the hub-bub of the audience, but far away enough to not be caught by the mics. In this closed and mute drama the tensions of their unresolved relationship play out, unguarded and illcitly performed in the sacred space of the ringside. This riveting scene is the death of all lingering romantic notions still held onto by their parents, and marks the start of the film’s final act as the families professionally break from each other.

MerryluCassellyDocfestCircusDynastyThe drama sails extremely close to the winds of soap opera, but as the filmmaker himself stated in the Q&A after the screening, he did everything he could to downplay the story’s melodrama. His care in this regards is thankfully evident in the finished product, as the film avoids caricaturing either villains or victims. The story ends on a departure, and an emotional note for love lost and familial ties broken. The romance the film holds for its young couple, for the history of the circus, and for the future troupe that could have been persists throughout, yet its strength ultimately lies in the emotion it chooses it temper rather than the story it might have chosen to exploit.

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Looking Forward to Doc/Fest 2015

Doc/Fest, it’s been a good while. 8 Years in Sheffield gave me more than ample opportunity to get to know you, heck I even remember when you still went by the more austere name of The Sheffield International Documentary Festival. One year as a volunteer, two years covering it for the Steel Press, and plenty more besides just stuffing myself with brilliant docs. A move away from the city and some absurdly-prohibitively-exhaustingly expensive rail fares have kept me away of late, but that’s not to say I haven’t missed you.


Then something really quite special gets announced: my old boss is putting on the world premiere of The Greatest Shows on Earth. Which is to say an archive doc built wholly on materials from my archive alma mater. Directed no less by the Icelandic gent behind one of my favourite films of last year, and scored by an Icelandic duo who are also no mean shakes. Well I really liked their first album at least. An all-singing all-dancing multimodal spectacular at Sheffield City Hall you say? Well maybe that rail-fare bullet is just going to have to got bit, because I sure as shit ain’t going to miss that show. When Prof. Vanessa Toulmin decides to put on a show then you do well to clear the schedule and book early. On Sunday she will be repeating her famed inaugral lecture as part of Doc/Fest, and the show of her Twenty Performing Wonders is quite the sight to behold, not least for the chance to see the deeply uncanny Dancing Pig (1907) on the big screen.

DancingPigTerrifiesSheffieldBut hauling myself up to Sheffield for a long weekend of Doc/Fest is an exciting prospect, and while I will only be able to get a whiff of all the festival has to offer, there are a couple of films high on my hit-lists. On the back the Greatest Shows opening gala there runs an invisible strand with a carny theme of sorts, and I’ll be doing everything I can to catch them. A thumbnail sketch of Circus Dynasty paints it as a Romeo and Juliesque story of two young proteges of rival acrobatic clans coming together in a frought romance. How that plays out in a documentary remains to be seen, but I’ll be hoping for some breathtaking feats at the very least. The story of Tyke the Outlaw Elephant also looks like an intriguing one, being the archive re-telling of the American circus elephant that went crazy, killed it’s trainer, before rampaging through a city. The staged execution of colossal caged beasts is a spectacle that goes back to Thomas Edison’s notorious film, and as morbid a draw as the doc’s tragic conclusion is I’ll be interested to see how the story is spun. Maybe a land-based Blackfish is on the horizon?


As an unimaginative sort I’m also drawn towards the Swedish productions which have been accepted to the festival, and perhaps most noteworthy of those is The Confessions of Thomas Quick, the serial killer that never was. A highly peculiar story of Swedish jurisprudence, Thomas Quick was the boogey-man of my youth: he who killed dozens and was sent down for a long time. Only it turned out Mr Quick’s only sin might have been a hyperactive imagination, being a mentally unstable fellow who for reasons unknown was more than happy to accept the blame for countless crimes he might not have committed. A justice system all to eager to close these cases took his word without following due process, and over time did it actually come out that Mr Quick might have been telling porkie pies. The story was an absolute sensation in Sweden, but struggled to break into the international press, so it will be interesting to see how these documentary makers repackage this story for a new audience.


Being a huge fan of Hugo Olsson’s Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 I’m more than a little excited for the doc Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. A political movement that was meticulously captured by a terrified media, and tracked by an even more obsessive CIA, the cause was lionized and demonized in inequal measure. Being a subject that could either fall over into fawning imbalance, or into cold detached objectivity, there are plenty of pitfalls for the film to traverse so I’ll be going in with certain trepidation, but holding out hope for what could be a promising doc.


Beyond that my eye’s been caught by a few odd films and the keywords that leap out about them: The Russian Woodpecker [Chernobyl, subjective], Containment [non-documentary, maybe extra-terrestrials?], Beyond Zero [Bill Morrison, WW1], Best of Enemies [Gore Vidal, pitbull politics], Good Girl [Norwegian, depression, performance art], Scrum [rugby, and rugby], Death of a Gentleman [India, cricket], Addicted to Sheep [sheep, and sheep], and somewhere out there there’s a short doc about Henderson’s Relish. That’s more than twice what I might be able to manage during my two and a half days out of six at the festival, but I’ll be having a crack at trying to blog about as much as I can muster. Sincerely hoping I might stumble across something brilliant that I can share with those who care to read about it. So come on Sheffield Doc/Fest, you’ve had good form in the past, don’t let me down this time.

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Dizzy Heights with Mountainous Films

Sometimes you get that odd confluence when a string of films of the same ilk all pop up at once. Well two and a half anyways, with one modern film, one silent, and a string of documentaries on the BBC iPlayer to follow. The release of the British Film Institute’s beautifully restored version of the silent Epic of Everest is a visually stunning and particularly rare treat on broadcast and catch-up TV, and the accompaniment of the archive-rich documentary Battle for the Himalayas is a hugely welcome double bill that feels all too rare these days. That all this should be followed by a documentary about a have-a-go vertiginous sheep-herder at the Cube in Bristol this week is perhaps half-ways tenous, but with Audrey of the Alps it feels like the altitude of my recent watchlist has gone up a few thousand feet in a very short space of time.

The Epic of Everest

The mountaineering genre holds an odd place in film history, from early expedition documentaries such as Epic of Everest, to the politically charged Bergfilms that fired German pre-war audiences, and the more immediate and almost resurrective stories of Touching the Void and Alive, the core drama is of the human spirit overcoming the odds be that for personal triumph or national glory. The recent news coverage of the duo that managed the first free climb of the notorious Dawn Wall of El Capitan in California shows there’s a still a wider interest in stories of conquest where we can find them, and the tension of potential/inevitable tragedy is the fuel of jeopardy that feeds a good story.

Setting up camp on El Capitan

While the assurance of a dramatic mountain backdrop practically guarantees something visually arresting on screen, the insistance by Netflix that nigh-on every mountaineering/skiing film in their collections features ‘stunning cinematography’ makes you wonder if the cameramen even have to bother beyond pointing the camera in the right direction. Which further begs the question why so many independently produced skiing and snowboarding films are so utterly dull? Beautiful vistas and the threat of serious injury or death, and still they can’t visually muster anything more complex than tricks and pratfalls to whatever shade of punk suits. An odd exception is Swedish director Ruben Östlund who cut his teeth making daft skiing films on the Val D’Isere, eventually got to film school, made some critically lauded observation dramas, before in time getting around to setting his latest award winning feature on, where else, but the Val D’Isere. There’s more to be said for Force Majeure when it hopefully gets to British cinemas later this spring, but the film balances the destructive force of mountains with the seismic fissures in a shattered family dynamic. It may be a mountain film, but not as we know it.

Anyways, for the soul with time to kill and a hankering for good screen histories on mountaineering the iPlayer is the place to go at the moment, with the aforementioned Timeshift documentary Battle for the Himalayas being of note, as well as a repeat of Eiger: The Wall of Death. Both are rich in archive footage and to-the-point talking head interviews, and both document periods when mountaineering achievements were a running story of national interest.

Audrey of the Alps at The Cube

As for the story of Audrey of the Alps, well I don’t know much beyond the blurb about it being a doc following a twenty-something trying to find themselves in the Alps. With a load of sheep. Beyond it’s pitch as a possible lost episode of the TV series Girls, the prospect of fine wines and even finer fromages from The Bristol Cheesemonger is the sort of thing which quite easily swings me towards at least giving the film a go. Get yourself to the Cube in central-ish Bristol for 8pm on Tuesday the 3rd if you too are easily tempted by wine, cheese, and a peculiar new documentary.

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Can Somebody Name a Film That’s Actually About Coffee?

A Film About Coffee: It’s title seemed to come more like a question than it did as a label for a new documentary. Maybe years spent in video rental stores and DVD libraries have somehow wired my lizard brain to instinctively assume the inquisitive tone whenever a film about ‘something’ comes up. Too many times I’ve had to look someone in the eye and recall a film that meets the wildly dissociated criteria they can dream up at the given moment: “give me a German film about, skaters maybe?” or even “can you think of an old British film about something, issues maybe. With a bit of grit?” or better still “have you got a Japanese comedy about food? Or better still a documentary about Japanese food?” Yeah sure, let me think about that, give me a minute and I’ll get you a few to pick from. But a film about coffee? That’s a much tougher question that you might first assume.

This Is CoffeeBecause certainly there have been a couple of documentaries that are explicitly about the bean, the process, the roasting, the industry and the global market for the rejuvenating juice, Black Gold being a recent example that comes to mind. Better yet is the delightfully perky THIS IS COFFEE! a public information film put out by the Coffee Brewing Institute in 1961. In its scant twelve and a half minutes it manages to be all your Mad Men wish-fulfilment dreams rolled into one. Exoticism, imagined foreign travel, brewing instructions, and staged tableaux of coffee being drunk “on the breakfast table” “at the writers desk” “at the college meeting” “at the romantic meal”. Coffee is LIFE, coffee is everywhere! It truly makes you wonder how many boozy lunches the dry men of the Coffee Brewing Institute had to sit through before Don Draper sold them that pitch.

The GZA the RZA the Bill Murray with Coffee and CigarettesBut how about films concerning coffee, than aren’t documentaries? Ask around and any hepcat worth their salt is bound to mention Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, so much so it’s practically a no-brainer. A good friend of mine hit the nail on the head when he noted that it’s essentially eleven short films that play like eleven awkward dates. Two people meet, they drink coffee, they have some stilted conversation, exchange a furtive glance or three, they maybe smoke a cigarette or two. The film’s a hit and miss oddity, a clever portmanteau of Jarmusch’s early short films glued together with some newer scenes, and it holds an undying attraction to music fans eager for theopportunity to see The White Stripes, or Iggy Pop and Tom Waits on screen. For myself the joy is seeing The RZA, The GZA and Bill “Groundhog Day, Ghostbustin Ass” Murray brought together in a mad moment of method acting. That and the fact that the three actually discuss coffee rather than just drink it.

But that’s it, that’s where the list stops short for most people I’ve managed to ask in the last couple of weeks. Whether it’s film nerds, or even challenging some of Bristol’s finest coffee experts, this line of inquiry has left me grasping for good films about, or at least intricately involved in the act of making, drinking and enjoying coffee. There are of course plenty of brilliant scenes built around drinking of coffee, sometimes the withholding of coffee, and more than few singing the praises of a “DAMN fine cup of coffee”. There’s some great comedy in the serving of coffee, some humour even in the noirish concoction of Steve Martin’s own java, but nothing which seems to distinguish itself beyond that.

Old Ingmar Bergman Having a Cup of JoeThe truth of the matter lies closer to my own crackpot theory about Swedish cinema, namely that there isn’t a single film (or TV series) set in the modern era which does not feature someone making or drinking coffee at some point in the whole affair. It’s a theory I’ve only had the casual chance to test in the Swedish films I’ve seen recently, but it’s holding up with an almost unnerving 100% consistency. Coffee is everywhere in Swedish film, just as it is an ever present part of Swedish life, and while neither a song or dance is made of the matter, it’s always just there.

And this truism obviously carries across borders, and my inability to find a good Film About Coffee hinges on the fact you don’t get good films about furniture, or breathing, or washing. Coffee is part of the firmament of everyday life, and until someone teases the subject out into something greater, the act of coffee itself is not likely step beyond it’s perennial bit-part status on screen any time soon. I’ll be curious to see what the actual documentary A Film About Coffee turns out to be like when it gets it’s South West debut at the Arnolfini in Bristol on the 7th of November, but I’m not expecting a paradigm shift in the starring role of coffee any time soon.

Instead I’ll end with my favourite coffee making scene in cinema, from the opening credits of the Ipcress File. Freshly ground beans and a French press isn’t a euphemism of how Michael Caine starts his days, but the brilliant title sequence to this spy classic still hints that there’s some romantic entanglement of which we’re not getting the full picture. Simple, effortless, and endlessly cool. Which is to say, quite unlike a good cup of coffee.

Tickets for the A Film About Coffee screening in Bristol are available on the Get Invited website.

All the other films I’ve been surreptitiously linking to can be found at the brilliant video store 20th Century Flicks, on the Christmas Steps in central Bristol. They too can do a brilliant job of recommending films to match your free-association taste requirements.

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In the Beginning There Were Documentaries

A Man with a Movie CameraWith certain fanfare and a headline interview on Radio 4’s Today programme, Sight & Sound today announced the results of their poll for the greatest documentary ever made. And as lists go it quickly set the wires of social media humming with outrage and consternation, as Dviga Vertov’s masterful Man with a Movie Camera was noted as comfortably taking the top spot. Should we even call it a documentary, is it just an art film, and what are documentaries even good for. So the debate ever was, it made for good reading for those with a real passion for the genre, if genre should even be considered the right word.

And so the occasion was taken by at least one commentator to take a pop at the eight ‘unimaginative’ souls who had picked out the Lumière’s first publicly screened film, the presumptively titled Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory. Much merriment was had at such a boring choice, and well, it sure as shit isn’t as exciting as that other classic of the Train Pulling Into the Station. As someone who so gladly proselytises for the occasionally put upon subject of Early Cinema, of course my heart sank.

Almost any Lumière film taken out of context is probably going to appear a bit dumb, and I’d certainly not question anyone who found them tedious, because I’ve slept through more than a few early films. And that considering most are under five minutes long. And sure, anyone idly picking the film for the sake of posterity should certainly be singled out as being unimaginative, but I doubt that’s the case. There’s far more to it than that.

On the walls of Chauvet CaveThe crude analogy that comes readily to mind, would be showing someone the 32000 year old paintings in the Chauvet Cave, so wonderfully captured in 3D documentary form by Werner Herzog in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and to have them turn and say “well they’re a bit shit, aren’t they?” Now you can’t argue that they’re masterpieces by the standards of modern or contemporary art, but then that is to quite colossally miss the forest for the trees. The analogy touches on the whole world of misguided discourse which would frame Early Cinema in terms of being ‘primitive’ and ‘unevolved’, where old cinema is ultimately a stepping stone before cinema could realise it’s all-singing, all-dancing, widescreen Technicolor 3D razzmatazz true self, which it was always MEANT to be. Which is so historically chauvinistic I struggle to know where to even begin.

But what is there to say for the Factory Gate? Context is of course king, and what excites me about considering such an unsupposing title as documentary is that it captures the first moment anyone thought to film life just as it was. No staging, no performance as with Edison’s Kinetoscope films, just working life as it was in that moment in time. That we should imbue film with such meaning and significance is completely ridiculous, and Louis Lumière sensed no occasion in capturing movement on a technical novelty he saw absolutely no future for. Yet in the beginning there was documentary, and still the form became secondary from the off all the same.

Discussing the matter with Pam Hutchinson of the brilliant blog Silent London, she conceded that the film is just a tech demo, but that “it takes imagination to see that it’s more than [that]. But once you see that… boom.” Which is as fine a case as could be made for appreciating Early Cinema, but it’s not easy to convince the sceptics.

Those looking for a supporting arguement in this debate would do well to take the uninitiated to see A Night at the Cinema in 1914, a special programme of Early Cinema programmed by the BFI and currently doing a tour round the UK. Picked out by the archivist Bryony Dixon, and with a score from the brilliant accompanist Stephen Horne, early reviews of the programme are positive, and it’s far better a defence of Early Cinema than I could ever state.

Complete dates for the nationwide tour of A Night at the CInema in 1914 can be found on the BFI’s website.

[My thoughts on what constitutes an unimaginative choice for greatest documentary ever made, and what films I’d put on my own list might however have to wait for another day!]

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The Bridge is Not a Documentary

“Come quickly, it’s Stockholm on the telly” my Mum shouts. It’s a BBC World documentary with a brief segment on the place of migrants in the city. Happy fruit and flower sellers on Hötorget speak proudly of how integrated they are, how their children have been born and raised as Swedes, and how glad they are for the opportunities afforded to them. Then the bright summery colours of the market fade as the voice-over concedes that “Sweden also has a darker side, as reflected in the recent popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction”. A bearded white baby-boomer is rolled out to read an extract from his latest novel, something about a dead woman, maybe strangled, something about the smell of flowers. This man’s books have sold well internationally, why is that asks the interviewer. Oh because it flies in the face of this utopian vision everyone has of Sweden, the sad reality that in some senses the country has become a “lost paradise”. Not that it took such a colossally ill-judged reference to Milton to raise the hackles of my family, as even the mention of ‘that’ genre had eyes rolling and groans rumbling.

The voice-over reflects that “this is of course fiction” with the qualification that it still “tells us something about the state of Sweden today”. Quite how well this crime novel matches Ulysses in capturing a city in a moment of time I’ll never know, as both will remain unread (or at least unfinished) for the foreseeable future as I busy myself unearthing the state of European relations in the 1930s from Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.

A Sunny Day on the Bridge Season 2

This of course is not to begrudge the relentless success of these marauding Nordic writers and producers, but rather an appeal against the endless, countless, and generally quite pointless one-note readings of the region spun out by tireless features writers everywhere. Social commentary is certainly a kernel to the formula of Scandinavian crime fiction, but it is not the sole point of the genre as boldly stated by at least one British journo. Maybe I’m too wound up as a half-native, but what can the average viewer hope to learn from The Killing, The Bridge, or indeed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? Yes, Malmö and København are surprisingly close to each other after the opening of the Öresunds bridge. Migrant integration is a serious issue, look only to the Husby riots in Stockholm last spring for that. Racism is on many levels endemic, and worryingly institutionalised, although thousands have taken to the streets against this. Women are broadly speaking more liberated, but that isn’t for a moment to say misogyny has been eradicated. Likewise folks are generally a bit more open about sex, or at least not crippled by embarrassment at the hint of the subject, but neither does that preclude increasing levels of sexual violence.

Spelling out these issues in such ludicrously broad terms is making me feel like an idiot for even mentioning them, which is perhaps why I’m getting a tad fed up with crime fiction being taken as the outsider’s one true conduit to the ‘dark underside’ of the Scandinavian social model. To the uninitiated there is no doubt much to see and learn from a drama set in a completely new culture, yet for all this novelty and exoticism I doubt many will be blinded the simple fact that The Bridge is not a documentary, but rather an incredibly well paced thriller with interesting and three dimensional characters.

winter on the Bridge Season 2

The new season, like the first, is packed with flourishes, twists and seemingly ceaseless turns as the Danish Martin Rohde and Swedish Saga Norén again team up to solve a new sprawling mystery. Their collaboration, and their poles-apart approach to personal interaction cuts through the whole of their investigation, and it is their mutual drive which keeps the viewer interested and up to speed with every step of the drama. Although there are more than a few cheap narrative tricks along the way (last minute SUDDEN CLIFFHANGER warnings abound), the show steps far enough away from the recognisable conventions of the emerging Scando-crime TV format to keep things interesting and unpredictable. Dissect or analyse the narrative for whatever social commentary you can find (and good luck with that in the new series), the real strength remains the characterisation of the show’s two leads, and the new series does plenty of digging into both their psyches and their past. The culmination of this latest series and its absolutely dizzying conclusion will have audiences howling for answers, in the best possible way.

While the second series kicks off with a double episode on BBC4 tonight, the bad news for the newcomer is that you really really REALLY have to start with the first series, as the first two minutes of the new series completely gives away the game of the latter. The good news is that the whole thing is readily available on UK Netflix right now, so there are no excuses not to get stuck in right this instance. Any object lessons in Scandinavian culture picked up from either series will be gladly received on the back of a postcard, questions likewise so.

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Getting Stuck Up River With Swandown

In the lift and on my way to see Swandown, I bumped into a neighbour. Niceties quickly dealt with, and his purpose towards Tesco established, I ended up trying to explain a film I hadn’t yet seen:
“This guy gets a pedalo shaped like a swan, and he rides it from Hastings to the Olympic village.”
“Ha, ok, right, so is it a documentary?”
“Well, sort of, a bit like a comedy too, I think.”
“And it’s got Stuart Lee in it as well.”
“Oh, ok.”
While I do live on the fifth floor, my lift really isn’t as slow as that sounds. And nor is the film itself, which lugubriously floats along the aforementioned outline with a strange momentum all of its own.

Starting with a fruitless battle against a ceaseless tide, artist/captin Andrew Kötting eventually sets to sea with the skipper and word-smith Iain Sinclair at the helm. Their floating steed is a fibreglass swan-shaped pedalo called Edith, and over the course of a couple of weeks, the vessel does indeed get from A to B. As he journeys up the canals and rivers of East Sussex, Kötting casts out countless points of association for all and sundry to latch onto. He meets a few odd folks on the banks, and goes ‘fishing for sounds’. There’s no plan or scheme, just a simple impulse for adventure, and a strong faith in the power of serendipity.

The pleasure of the film is in its visual, be that the gorgeous misty morning shots of Edith calmly gliding through a modern pastoral idyll, or more directly in the sight of Kötting jumping fully be-suited into waters and muddy banks with aplomb. That, and we get a short sequence with Stewart Lee and Alan Moore riding the swan for a while, as bewildered in the act as any knowing witness would surely have been to see it.

The film quite happily establishes itself within the distinct realm of artist-driven filmmaking, and an immediate comparison, in form, and in its handling of British landscapes could easily be found with Patrick Keiller’s Robinson trilogy. Or you could quite happily associate it with Apolcalypse Now, or Deliverance, or any film which happens to go up or down a river. The associations are there for the taking, and the journey carries on quite happily regardless.

It’s difficult to say if the film would have held all 94 minutes of my unbroken attention if I’d just stumbled across it in a gallery, but even without conflict or purpose the film still held a strange allure. Though maybe not a universal allure, as the middle-aged burke in front of me swiftly found something of unbroken interest lurking on his luminous Blackberry. Having been reprimanded by an usher (!) he spent the last hour of the film itching and twisting like a caffeinated seven-year old at a slow church sermon. His declaration on leaving that ‘that was a load of fucking bollocks’ certainly cuts to the nub of the matter, but you can’t help but wonder what he was expecting. A song and a dance number? A laugh a minute? A nice nineteenth century oil painting of, y’know, REAL art?

Each to their own I suppose, but while Swandown hardly surprises it still manages to elicit the odd laugh, and to keep you watching. A strange if beautiful beast, to say the least.

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Showing at the Showroom: Catfish

It’s a hopeless period for films of the less-said-the-better ilk, but the new documentary Catfish hangs on this ledge more precariously than most. Acutely aware that reviews built on nothing but vagueness and generalities make for incredibly tedious reading, I will keep it brief. The short message: go and see it, preferably before some blabbermouth spoils it.

The thumbnail synopsis is that it’s the record of a slowly blossoming internet relationship-come-romance between a young New York photographer Nev, and Megan the half-sister of an 8 year old painting prodigy that’s taken to painting Nev’s work and sending it to him. Egged on by brother and friends, a trio set off to finally unite Nev and Megan ‘in real life’. When they finally get to rural Michigan ‘all is not as it seems’ and shit gets very ‘real’.

Beyond the contrivance and thriller cliché of the film’s blurb, the film builds towards its grand reveal, the volte face, the upending of everything by almost convincing you of its predictability. The endless narcissism of the project and its filmmakers gives the whole thing a decidedly questionable whiff of the Blair Witch Project, and the rather earnest and self-involved inflection of the oh-we’re-not-fauxumentary. And then the almighty SNAP comes, and you’re just left struggling to hold onto what the hell is going on. It’s frankly terrifying, and quite brilliant for just that.This is far from the first documentary this year to have foyer-critics hemming and herring over ‘what is REAL, really, in the greater scheme of things?’ But film philosophy undergraduatese aside, it delights me that in a connected dispute over music rights, the filmmakers might be forced to swear on oath to the veracity of the film. On oath! The TRUTH will finally come out! Or maybe we could just enjoy the film for the tangled and baffling mess that it is?

Five out of Five

Catfish is showing at the Showroom cinema in Sheffield from the 17th of December 2010.

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The Miscreants of Taliwood @ Sheffield Doc/Fest

Terrifying is not an adjective you can readily apply to most documentaries, at least not beyond the subject matter at hand. Sure, plenty take horrifying travesties of justice as their core focus, and consequently make for a ‘tough watch’. The Miscreants of Taliwood goes one further in effectively making a documentary horror film. Anything can happen, and consequently does. The Doc/Fest catalogue somewhat glibly ends its synopsis reflecting that Miscreants is “at times difficult to watch.” The film goes far beyond that, occasionally to the point of forcing more sensitive viewers out of the screening I saw. Personally I had the good fortune to almost look away, to second guess my line of acceptability. Miscreants definitely crossed that line.

The setup is that of Australian artist/filmmaker George Gittoes, living in Pakistan, off in pursuit of the indigenous Pashto film industry. Micro-budget films that come somewhere between Rambo, Bollywood and Jackass, with political commentary and guaranteed midgets in every film. The heartland of this industry in Peshawar, close to the borders of Afghanistan, is closer still to political rule of the Taliban. As has been well documented, the Taliban hate all ‘frivolous’ creation that isn’t in the name of god, and consequently don’t look too favourably on camp action films with scantily-clad women. Film producers, and dvd vendors are both under persistent attack, kidnapping and threatening individuals, blowing up the stalls of those who sell the films. Still the industry keeps on turning, the producers on the run, the stars living an uneasy existence in an unacknowledged but ever present public eye.

The terror beyond the subject matter itself comes in the merry abandon Gittoes holds towards the telling of this story, his scant disregard for maintaining a register the audience can be comfortable with. Observational footage is inter-cut with overt and covert dramatic/satirical recreations, Gittoes role as observer pushed right to the forefront of the film by maintaining an assistant camera man at all times, consciously filming the filming of the indigenous film industry. When the outsider chooses to personally get involved with the industry, stumping up $4000 (US) and taking a key supporting role, his position as observer, documentary filmmaker, Pashto star and producer gets mixed up into a frankly dizzying mix.

There’s the palpable tension of watching Gittoes drive into the Taliban heartland to interview a prominent Mullah on censorship, an anxiety of the Gittoes becoming just another kidnapped Westerner, executed for the world to behold online. Not that this is played deathly straight, as on either end of the segment are some pretty hilarious clips of Gittoes practically falling over himself in the role of local action superstar.

The central question at the heart of the film seems to be what kind of film star is Gittoes destined to become: that of the AK-wielding Pashto action hero, the dead subject of a gruesome Taliban execution tape, or even just as a unabashed, exploitative and unreliable gonzo documentary maker?

The broad laughs of a Western audience at the high camp shenanigans of the Pashto film industry are all fine and well, but Miscreants’ brilliance comes in the genuinely horrific last chapter of the film, where this very laughter is turned to political ends. Taliwood is as daft as a brush, but it’s one of the region’s few areas of self expression. The Taliban are doing their utmost to terrorise this industry out of existence, and in its place only an industry of propaganda can exist. But just like Pashto action films, the execution propaganda films are pushing towards even more hyperbolic levels of audience engagement. Gittoes goes the distance in showing this horrifying absurdity by throwing an execution film up there. He shows some of it, he partially censors some of it. I couldn’t tell you how much as I’m no big fan of snuff films myself, and chose to close my eyes for the climax. Others didn’t, a few even took this as a cue to make a swift departure from the cinema.

I hated Gittoes for going where he did, for showing the unshowable, while still sort-of-but-insufficiently censoring it at the same time. I couldn’t quite believe the festival would let people see the film without a sliver of warning.

But then the film makes its points, about the indoctrination of the young, about the escalation of terror on both sides of the conflict, about the sheer absurdity of the Taliban’s hypocrisy. Wham-Bam-chew-on-that pal.

Perhaps it’s a bit cheap to knock your audience down, and then effectively lecture them while they’re still on the mat. But it works, the conflict is fucking terrifying and to do it with even an iota of justice you can’t shy away from things. Which is perhaps the ultimate cliché, but never was a stronger case made for it, and all the power to a documentary for going where mainstream news couldn’t go in a million years. A disconcerting experience through and through, and unlikely to be on More4 or BBC Storyville anytime soon.

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