Divorce Iranian Style (1998) — Some Semblance of Order in the Court

The title of Kim Longinotto’s documentary Divorce Iranian Style appears to be a tip of the hat to Pietro Germi’s Divorce Italian Style, an award-winning comedy from a time when being in a language other than English was no barrier to success at the Oscars. Germi’s film concerns an Italian nobleman who, despite having fallen out of love with his wife, is unable to get a divorce under the Italian legal system. Desperate for a way out, he concocts a plan to manipulate his wife into having an affair so that he can burst in on the lovers, kill his wife and then escape with a slap on the wrist after claiming that it was a crime of passion. While the outcome of the nobleman’s scheming is neither here nor there, the film suggests that people will always find a way to liberate themselves from an un-loved spouse… even when the legal system makes divorce a practical impossibility.

Longinotto’s Divorce Iranian Style is shot almost entirely inside one of Teheran’s family courts where Islamic judges known as Qadi preside over divorce proceedings that heavily favour the husband and the institution of marriage. However, despite the presence of horrendous structural inequalities, Longinotto’s subjects fight for their emancipation using any and all tactics at their disposal.

Continue reading →

REVIEW — Drone (2014)

FilmJuice have my review of Tonje Hessen Shei’s Drone, a shortish documentary about the use of drones in the American War on Terror.

As a long-time science fiction fan who once studied war in an academic setting, I must admit that I find the rise of drone warfare to be an endlessly fascinating subject. Much of what we think of as the modern nation state has been shaped not only by the waging of war but also by the administrative requirements associated with the on-going maintenance of a sizeable security apparatus. Now… imagine what governments might become if that security apparatus were to be entirely automated. Suddenly, there would be no need for a standing military aside from a (largely administrative) officer class and a few special forces types for unusual situations. Given that most Western politicians have abandoned the idea of administering their own country’s infrastructures and economies, would they cling on to the idea of national military forces or would they simply cut a cheque to a military contractor who promised to deliver victory for significantly less than their competition? Given that Western governments have abandoned most administrative duties beyond throwing people in jail and waging wars, would there really be a need for national governments if standing armies became a thing of the past? If a government doesn’t provide healthcare, run schools, repair roads or fight wars then what’s the point of having one at all? Drones aren’t just another piece of military tech, they’re the thin end of the wedge we call tomorrow.  Many academics have realised the significance of this technology and thrown themselves into the study of drones, Tonje Hessen Shei’s Drone is a film that tries to join that conversation but winds up trying to cover way too much ground in way too little space:

Schei’s greatest sin is the failure to corral her ideas and feelings into a single coherent train of thought. Rather than presenting us with arguments or linking up data-points in a manner that encourages further reflection, Schei moves almost at random from complex analysis to footage of angry Peshawaris and then onto footage that could just as easily have been defence industry PR as images culled from the latest generation of video games. The frustrating thing about this documentary is that while it says many interesting things about an absolutely fascinating subject, it feels less like a sustained piece of cinematic argument than a load of raw documentary footage cut together at random.

Drone is a documentary that touches on a number of really interesting questions but rather than looking into the question of why the Pakistani airforce don’t shoot down American drones or how America’s criminally loose definitions of ‘terrorist’ came to form the basis of a rolling campaign of mechanised murder, the film merely touches base with a number of different issues before moving on to the next idea. The weirdest thing about Shei’s decision to cover a lot of ground in so little depth is the fact that the film is only a little over an hour long. Even an extra 20 minutes would have made the difference between ‘incoherent mess’ and ‘structured trains of thought’. Frustrating stuff really.

Gaea Girls (2000) — Those Aren’t Real Tears

Back in the early 1980s, Chigusa Nagayo and Lioness Asuka formed a professional wrestling tag-team known as The Crush Girls. Part of the second generation of Japanese professional wrestlers, the Crush Girls proved so impossibly popular that they changed the face of professional women’s wrestling and raised the bar for female wrestlers all over the world. Despite their immense popularity, the Crush Girls split up in 1989 when they reached the then-mandatory retirement age of 27. Six years later, Chigusa Nagayo came out of retirement to found Gaea Japan, an entirely new wrestling promotion in which she would also play out a long-standing grudge with her one-time partner Lioness Asuka. Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams’ Gaea Girls is a documentary filmed in and around the training facilities of Gaea Japan that looks at how aspiring female wrestlers cope not only with the traditionally male-dominated world of professional wrestling but also with Chigusa Nagayo’s ideas about parenting.

Continue reading →

Shinjuku Boys (1995) — Even When Words Fail

The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote that “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”. What Wittgenstein actually meant remains a subject of philosophical debate but we can read his comment as a reflection upon the two-way relationship between our perception of the world and the ways in which we talk about it.

Intuitively, facts should always take precedence over language and whenever we encounter a fact that does not fit with our use of language, we should simply update our vocabulary to better reflect the facts on the ground. While there are certainly institutions and groups who try to educate people about ‘correct’ language use, the meaning of a word is always determined by the way it is most commonly used by a given population. What this means in practice is that while experts may be forever inventing language that is a better fit with current thinking about a particular phenomenon, having those new terms filter down into general usage is subject to the same structural biases as any other attempt at changing the way that people think.

The problem with the rigidity of our spoken language is that the vernacular often contains concepts and assumptions that are not only out of date but actively harmful. For example, if we define masculinity in terms of having a penis then someone who identifies as male despite not having a penis must simply be wrong about their gender. While there was a time when our culture was quite happy to make this type of judgement, our understanding of gender has now evolved to the point where terms like ‘male’ and ‘female’ are becoming increasingly hard to pin down.

The language of gender and sexuality has evolved with almost unprecedented speed over the last few decades and new conceptual iterations seems to generate more and more political heat as words are fought over by people with different needs and ideas. If the limits of our shared language mean the limits of our world then the battle to control the conceptual underpinnings of our language is also the battle to control our world.

Directed by Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams, Shinjuku Boys is a documentary about a group of people who were assigned female at birth but identify more closely with the male gender than the female. Made all the way back in 1995, I am sure that many of the terms used in this documentary are horrendously outdated but while Shinjuku Boys may struggle with its pronouns, it does show how people will continue to perform and negotiate their genders even when words fails them.

 

Continue reading →

REVIEW — Dreamcatcher (2015)

FilmJuice have my review of Kim Longinotto’s thoroughly excellent documentary Dreamcatcher.

As I say in my review, Kim Longinotto is one of the most criminally under-appreciated documentarians that Britain has ever produced. Her latest film follows the exploits of Brenda Myers-Powell, a former sex-worker who has set up an organisation designed to help people leave the sex trade. The activities of Dreamcatcher Foundation include handing out condoms on street corners and helping people to find beds in drug treatment programmes but also to reach out to people in schools and prisons who are at risk of falling into prostitution.

Aside from being incredibly moving and a really amazing documentary about the lives of America’s urban poor, Dreamcatcher does two really interesting and important things:

Firstly, it takes its cues from Brenda and talks about sex-work as a form of addiction. Brenda’s methods are not those of the politician, religious leader, or social worker but those of the recovering addict who talks about their experiences and encourages others to do the same:

Brenda’s attitude seems to be that she ‘was’ all of the women she encounters and so she can speak to them and help them to do whatever it is that they need to do in order to survive and live free. Brenda’s capacity for understanding is captured in a series of amazing interviews where she will ask a teenage girl or a sex worker whether they have done something and, despite the other person’s denial, she will talk about how it is okay to do what you need to do in order to survive. The power of these scenes lie in the facial expressions of the people Brenda talks to as while they are used to lying through their teeth to parents and authority figures, they cannot lie to Brenda because she knows exactly what they are going through. The most moving scene in the film is undoubtedly the moment in which Brenda gets a bunch of teenaged girls to talk openly about their histories of sexual violence for what seems to have been the first time ever. Longinotti captures not only the moment but also the sense of relief that comes from sharing and knowing that they are not alone.

I think there is probably an important book to be written about the language of addiction and how it has spread beyond the traditional confines of drink and drugs to encompass activities including sex and sex-work as well as food. Scarcely a month goes by without someone writing an article for the Guardian about the addictive nature of processed sugar and junk food.

 

Secondly, Dreamcatcher does for prostitution what The Wire did for the drugs trade. In other words, just as The Wire showed the drugs trade to be an amazingly complex social phenomenon whose tendrils had worked not only into local politics but also the school system, Dreamcatcher suggests that prostitution has its roots firmly embedded in the American family:

All the women in this film have stories about how they were abused as a child and how this abuse got them used to relationships with older men who would exploit their sexuality in increasingly aggressive and brutal ways. One of Brenda’s helpers is a former pimp named Homer and he explains how childhood abuse served to normalise not only under-age sex and the exchange of sex for money but also the use of violence to keep women under control. This vision of the sex trade as a system of exploitation is made particularly clear when Brenda talks to a young woman who grew up in California and got her start in the sex trade at the age of eight when she was picking up money and taking it back to the pimps.

The extent to which prostitution has perverted these women’s relationships is made particularly clear in a scene where a sex-worker takes a call from her baby’s father. Initially, the call seems a bit weird as she keeps calling him ‘baby-daddy’ but it then becomes clear that while the man is certainly her child’s father, he is also her pimp and so the role of ‘baby-daddy’ is reconfigured by the sex trade to include the sexual exploitation of women. This pattern plays itself out again and again throughout the film as women are never put onto the street by ‘pimps’ or ’employers’, it is always lovers and family members.

 

I simply cannot recommend this film enough, it’s an absolutely fantastic documentary that touches on many of the themes and ideas visited in David James’ The Interrupters and Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss but I think it actually manages to do much better than either of those films. This is a great film and a great jumping-on point for anyone interested in discovering the work of one of Britain’s greatest living documentarians. Even the Q&A included on the DVD is amazing!

REVIEW — The Decent One (2014)

FilmJuice have my review of Vanessa Lapa’s documentary about Heinrich Himmler, The Decent One.

The Decent One draws on some private correspondence that was uncovered in Himmler’s house at the end of the war and sold into private hands by light-fingered American soldiers. Following the scandal surrounding the so-called Hitler diaries, the documents never made that much of a splash and were never made public until Lapa’s parents decided to buy them for her so that she could make a documentary about them. The result is a rather frustrating experience as while the film does give some fascinating glimpses into what life must have been like for the friends and family of prominent Nazis, Lapa chooses to focus most of her attentions on Himmler rather than the people around him.

This evidently put Lapa in something of a sticky situation as how do you produce a biographical documentary about a prominent Nazi without inviting unflattering comparisons to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem or more psycho-sociological writing such as Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality. Lapa tries to overcome this problem by unearthing scandalous biographical details such as Himmler’s penchant for sadomasochistic sex and his habitual drug use but the methods she uses to present these so-called biographical details are so manipulative that you can’t help but raise a sceptical eyebrow:

Lapa makes a great show of putting the documents in the foreground of the film and many shots of Himmler’s angular hand-writing give the impression that the documents are being allowed to speak for themselves. However, take a step back from the images of Himmler’s correspondence and you start to realise that Lapa’s editorialising is so aggressive that it smacks of desperation and frequently borders on the outright manipulative. For example, one of the earliest exchanges of letters between Himmler and his future wife finds Himmler referring to himself as a ‘naughty man’ for spending too much time away from his fiancé, to which the woman playfully responds that she will exact a terrible revenge for his absence. Now… in the context of hundreds of personal letters, this exchange would probably come across as the slightly awkward flirtations of a sexually active couple but Lapa isolates these sentence fragments and instructs her voice actors to deliver readings that encourage the audience to conclude that the future Mr. and Mrs. Himmler has a relationship that was a bit kinky if not actually sadomasochistic. Also suspect is the way that Lapa juxtaposes a document relating to stomach problems caused by prolonged opium use with Himmler’s passing assertion that he had experienced a touch of constipation while on the Eastern front. Again, when seen in the context of an on-going personal correspondence, such an admission might come across as little more than a comment on Himmler’s health but Lapa frames the information in a manner that encourages us to infer that Himmler was a habitual drug user. Aside from being dubious historical practice, such manipulative sensationalism only serves to highlight the extent to which Lapa struggles to find anything new to say about Himmler that hasn’t been said before: There are no private doubts to be found here, only the belief that he was doing the right thing and that history would prove him right.

Surveying some of the film’s other reviews, I notice that I am not the only one to dislike the heavy-handedness of Lapa’s editorialising. Setting aside the fact that films like Shoah set the tone for Holocaust documentaries by allowing people to speak for themselves, I am also struck by the fact that there is now a very fine line between a serious documentary about the Nazis and the type of sensationalist trash you get on cable TV. Massage the primary sources a bit too much and your careful documentary turns into Hitler’s Henchmen by way of Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe.

REVIEW – The Overnighters (2013)

FilmJuice have my review of Jesse Moss’s rather frustrating documentary The Overnighters.

The documentary is set against the backdrop of the North Dakota oil boom, which saw a massive expansion in the North Dakota oil industry at a time when many Americans were losing their jobs and their homes in the Great Recession. However, while North Dakota now has the lowest unemployment rate of any state in the Union, the job market expanded so quickly and generated so much money that the state’s rental sector simply could not keep up meaning that many Americans travelled thousands of miles to get a job in the oil industry only to realise that their new job didn’t pay enough to allow them to cover rent. The film revolves around a Lutheran pastor who set up a programme that would allow the working poor to sleep on the floor of his church.

The documentary is at its absolute best when it shows the inhumanity and indifference of American institutions:

The most striking thing about this documentary is how little support Reinke gets from… well… anyone. The oil industry in North Dakota is going through a period of historic expansion and yet despite record profits rolling in to corporate coffers, none of the oil companies seems to provide food or shelter for the thousands of people they employ. The oil boom has reportedly given the under-populated state of North Dakota a billion-dollar budget surplus and yet the state would rather shut down the church and ban people from living in caravans than find a way to house and feed the thousands of people who helped to create that surplus. Even more shocking is the way that Reinke is forced to battle his own church as parishioners file into his office and trumpet their Christian values in the same breath as they complain about poor people making the place look untidy.

However, rather than expanding this critique into something more systematic, Moss takes the disastrous decision to focus upon the human element and the experiences of the men who are running and relying on the Overnighters programme. This approach is quite traditional in American documentaries as human interest stories sell better than analytical pieces but you can only make that kind of film when the humans are interested in telling their stories and the men who feature in The Overnighters keep their emotional cards very close to their chests. As I point out in my review, Herzog’s Into the Abyss is a great example of how to use human stories to build a social critique but Herzog’s interviews help his subject to develop their own thoughts whereas Moss seemed reluctant to ask any questions whatsoever. For example, one of the subjects spends his time spouting vitriol after being asked to leave the church and Moss neither challenges his vitriolic remarks or tries to determine what actually happened. Similarly, the film seems to imply that one of the subjects might well have been sexually involved with a man staying in the church who then blackmailed him but Moss never bothers to ask questions that might have allowed him to share the real story of what happens at the end of the film. The Overnighters had the potential to be a great little documentary about the plight of America’s working poor but rather than making that film, Moss tried to make a film about people’s feelings when nobody wanted to discuss them.

Another issue the film brought to light is the role of charity in perpetuating systemic inequality. According to the film, the oil industry did not pay its workers a living wage in the sense that their salaries did not allow them to make rent and feed themselves, forcing hundreds of people to sleep in their cars. It does not seem unreasonable to suggest that, allowed to continue unchecked, these working practices would have resulted in hundreds of deaths and people fleeing the cold of North Dakota in order to return home. The resulting humanitarian disaster and shrinking of the labour pool would presumably have resulted in either the state stepping in or employers raising wages and building dormitories to arrest declining production. While charities like the Overnighters might prevent humanitarian disasters and save hundreds of lives, they do provide both the state and the public sector with an excuse for not changing their practices.  After all, why would an oil company build dormitories when a church down the road provides one at no cost to them? Watching The Overnighters, I was struck by the fact that the only way of addressing systemic inequality is at a systematic level: Workers can’t make rent? raise the minimum wage. Rents too high? Cap them. People forced to sleep in their cars because their wages are too low? raise corporate taxes and use the money to provide cheap social housing. There is something faintly obscene about the fact that the oil boom gave the state of North Dakota a seven-figure budget surplus and yet the only time we hear from the state in the film is when they are trying to shut down the church or ban people from sleeping in caravans.