Tag Archives: Film Festivals

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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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.

TheGreatestShowsonEarthcometoSheffield

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?

TykeontheRuninSheffieldDocFest

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.

ThomasQuickkommertilSheffield

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.

BlackPanthersatDocFestSheffield

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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Finding Sheffield’s Loose Threads

Protect and Survive Mushroom CloudThe docu-drama you are about to witness is one of the most intensely realistic portrayals of nuclear holocaust ever seen. So daring is this British production, that it has never been scheduled on U.S. network television. Threads is not a polished Hollywood star-studded feature… it is an honest portrayal of events that could take place should there be a nuclear war. “Threads” is graphic and shocking, and may not be suitable for children. Viewer discretion is advised.

Between those who stayed up to watch it on the 23rd of September 1984, and a whole generation of children who were shown the film at school, the impact of the BBC TV play Threads seems to have left an indelible mark on viewers well beyond its original broadcast. The warning quoted above, given by the local Vancouver station CKVU, both captures the impact the film had on audiences while also overselling what is ultimately quite an understated film. It is indeed about the end of the world, but its power is its focus on two very average families and the domestic drama which ties them together. The horror is of course how a narrative so familiar from British soaps gets up-ended by thermo-nuclear war. Absurd as that sounds the film demonstrates that the abstraction of a truly global catastrophe can only effectively be told through a more immediately personal perspective.

For some audiences the horror is also inextricably wound up in the film’s use of location, and the familiarity of Sheffield plays strongly to locals, but also to a wider recognition of a location which is identifiably the North of England. As discussed a very long while back, the strength of Sheffield as a location on screen seems to consistently be that it is both visually striking yet on some level quite anonymous too. Threads bears this out, with a very limited number of wider establishing landscapes shots breaking up a string of location shooting which presses in to limit recognisable features. The trained eyes of Sheffielders on local history, and local interest forums have however done a fair bit of work identifying the city with the scant clues to be seen on-screen, and along with this information I did a rewatch recently to see what other locations I could work out. The results made for quite a satisfying google map:

The locations pinpointed are not all locked, and I’d be very interested to hear anyone’s ideas about other sites from the film in the comments section below. Threads Sheffield Radio Times CoverAdditions and corrections will of course be made to the map as suggested!

As for the status of Threads in Sheffield, it lives on with an eerie after-life that goes well beyond any form of ‘cult’ status that might be bestowed upon it. Over the years I lived in the city there was a consistent club night that took the name of the film, but which has since gone into retirement. The film also has an ever growing word-of-mouth reputation that swells with each new intake of students, and working in a university video library it was plain to see that the single copy we held got a lot of usage throughout the year as word got around about the uncanny post-apocalyptic tale set on those recognisable hills. It was after all from a battered VHS copy in the very same library that I first had a chance to see the film, and I’ll always quietly resent the friend who suggested we give this unknown film a go at ten to midnight on a weekday.

Anecdotally I’ve heard that a number of attempts have been made over the years to put the film on ‘officially’ at a cinema in Sheffield, but owing to a nasty mess of rights, and the fact that the contract wranglers at the BBC had never conceived that someone might want to show the TV play on the big screen, meant that a screening could never be cleared. Thankfully the brilliant Sensoria music and film festival in Sheffield have pulled it off this year, with a special screening taking place outdoors next to Park Hill in the city centre. Ruth in ThreadsThe fact that tickets for the event sold out 4 days before the screening stands as some testimony to the TV play itself, especially when tickets stand a few pounds North of what you might pay for a DVD of the film.

The final enshrining of Threads as a Sheffield classic has however been sealed in the week gone by the efforts of the ’30 Years of Threads’ project which deftly pulled together a number of comments and readings of the film by staging a co-ordinated twitter “live re-watch” of the film on the exact 30th anniversary of the film, down to the minute of its original broadcast! One of the curators behind the project, Rob Barker, did a good job of summarising the event and the film, and you’d do well to cast an eye over his notes and review of the event over here.

Add to this a curated film and audio work by Matt Stokes, which used contemporary performances from Sheffield locals to imagine and re-stage the long-term impact on the world well after the attack portrayed in Threads. The resulting installation, In Absence of the Smoky God, uses film and dialogue, alongside materials borrowed from Barry Hines personal archives, sounds riveting and original, and I’m gutted to be missing it. Those within reach of Sheffield would do well to get there before it closes on the 8th of November.

For a former resident stuck in another corner of the country with only a DVD to go on, the overflowing source of Youtube has proven a valuable distraction for all things tangentially related to Threads. A QED documentary from 1982 proved to be a spark which instigated the commissioning of Threads, and is well worth a look. As is the Newsnight discussion which followed the original broadcast of the TV play, which while being a bone-dry panel debate between experts on all sides of the issue, is still interesting as a historical document, in particular in showing the odd minutiae which the panellists get hung up on.

Overall it’s brilliant to see such a devastating film enshrined and lionised by the cultural establishment and the people of Sheffield itself. Unforgettable is an overused word, but the horrific images and the devastating story of Threads is not an easy one to block out.

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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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Showing at the Showroom: When You’re Strange

The poster to the documentary When You're Strange[Major Correction: In the opening paragraph of this I state that the film opens with a Jim Morrison look-a-like stumbling around a desert, looking lost, hitching a ride from himself, and then hearing about his own death in Paris on the radio. I felt the whole thing seemed a bit anomalous to the rest of the film, but it turns out it was in fact Morrison in his own film HWY: American Pastoral, with ominous radio dialogue dubbed in by the documentary’s director Tom DiCillo.

It’s an inexcusable oversight on my part, fuelled by my own indignant pride at ignoring press-notes.

It’s comforting to know that others found these sequences uncannily restored to the point of looking like the were shot last week, and I guess the whole thing felt a little anomalous to me. The fact that DiCillo recut Morrison’s own film to suit the documentary’s narrative purposes is also pretty questionable in my book.

Not that that matters, as it still doesn’t excuse the fact that I fucked up.]

When batting around general truisms about documentaries it’s easy to just throw away the glib observation that ‘it’s all about the subject, sink or swim, it’s all about the subject’.  Which is true, as outside the realms of art cinema I have yet to hear or see anyone make a stunning hour and a half treatise on the story of paint drying. That said, part of me wonders why not?

The new documentary When You’re Strange is a study of The Doors brief explosion, the dips, the peaks, and the eventual demise of frontman Jim Morrison. It’s brimming with some quite stunning archive footage of the band preparing, recording, performing, and just larking around, with nary a talking head in sight. The film opens with a pretty uncanny Morrison [look-a-like] stumbling about in the desert, getting a lift from himself(?) and then hearing the news about his own death in Paris on the radio. At which point Johnny Depp, the modern cicerone of the hedonistic Sixties (see – Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson) chimes in some flat, timeless yet instantly forgettable observation about ‘The Man’ Jim Morrison. Which as openings for documentaries go is pretty damn worrying in my book.

The film eventually cuts to the actual business of the band; formation; early beginnings; first performances; the first studio session, and so forth and so on. The early days at UCLA film school, the band members found in meditation class and the first performances with Jim keeping his back to the audience. Following the daft opening a creeping sense of ‘going through the motions’ almost set in, saved wholesale by the endless wash of superb archive material. Footage like this, be it from television recordings, or from home film collections has a nasty habit of looking awful when blown up. Grain, static flicker, crackly sound, and aspect ratios which refuse to stay put make for a documentary makers nightmare. When You’re Strange has miraculously ironed over all these issues, and produced a film for fans of the band to endlessly fawn over.

The reputation of The Door’s live is as big as the band itself, yet actually seeing the band’s frenzied performance, Morrison’s explosive presence, the army of police officers spread out unevenly on stage, managed exceed the over-hyped picture I had of these ‘happenings’. More Beatlemania than hippy-hippy-shake, but with an added twist of cruelty and occasional no-show. The film bumbles on with the over-arching narrative, Morrison’s comings and goings eclipsing the whole of the rest of the band. The myth of the band rolls on, weighed down by the clichés it helped reinforce. Jim Morrison dies, his legacy lives on, The End.

Simply put the film is as good as your love of The Doors. If you can’t abide the band, or Jim Morrison in particular then you’ll really struggle with it. If you love the band then you’ll just drown in all the footage the film serves up. Those in the middle will find the film pretty middling. In part this reflects the film’s success in telling the band’s tale without either overblown hagiography or excessive apology. On the flipside maybe this just reflects how dangerously married the film is to its’ subject matter. 

Of course most documentaries have to be precariously close to their subject to come into existence in the first place, but it’s tricky when you can’t quite place the authorial bias in relation to the material. Director Tom DiCillo must obviously be a fan, but his presence and the tone it applies to the film is filtered through the slightly stern, yet reverentially hushed tones of Johnny Depp. The brilliance of a good and unexpected documentary is the ability to take even the most unpeculiar subject and frame it in such a way that anyone and everyone can take something from it.

Font fetishist doc Helvetica immediately springs to mind in this sense, taking the definition of a flat subject and breathing focus into the subject, and it was served well by building on the passion and interest of those at the heart of typography design. A Fistful of Quarters also plumbed the dangerously fringe fields of retrogaming, pursuing the compulsive score chasing of cabinet arcade freaks. As a struggling Pac Man addict I was instantly drawn to this tale, and the film found a huge audience well beyond the limits of gaming-niche it inhabited with a story of a rivalry that matched any Hollywood fare you care to mention. It of course played very loose and ready with the facts to build an immaculate arc for this story, but this it would seem is par for the course in modern documentary making.

That said, selling a documentary on an unspectacular subject is [as the Swedes would say] like selling sand to the Bedouins. Both Helvetica and Fistful both held a kooky hook which could sell them to anyone with even the smallest vein of curiosity. That they were both great documentaries also helped. Speaking personally, the magic of a brilliant documentary is the unexpected one you stumble across at a film festival, or at the back end of the TV schedules. Sheffield’s own DocFest does a fine job of bombarding me with more peculiar things than I could shake a festival pass at, and the kinks of programming and personal availability has forced me into seeing films I wouldn’t otherwise touch with a barge pole. A few stinkers along the way, sure, but a few gems I wouldn’t ever have a chance of seeing again.

Television however is the real home of the cold-calling documentary. A highlight in recent memory was The Man With the Golden Gavel, about A-list art auctioneer Simon de Pury, which I caught late on BBC4 and somehow managed to keep me hooked well past my bed time. Its’ subject, while charming to excess, is not particularly likeable, and more than a little cut-throat. It’s hard to curry interest in the struggles of a man who can only be described as obscenely rich, but the film skipped along with a swift pace and was packed with plentiful detail about the large auction houses of the world. I had absolutely zero interest in the subject, but stuck watching I was.

Whether When You’re Strange will have this effect on the unsuspecting cine-goer I couldn’t  tell you, as author and viewer are too enthused about the subject to begin with.

When You’re Strange is showing at the Showroom cinema in Sheffield from the 1st of July 2010

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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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