Art isn’t so much a window on the world as the condensation that forms on said window whenever we stand too close. As creative beings we inhale ideology and exhale art… metabolising the myths, assumptions and taboos comprising our cultures and turning them into a mist that hangs somewhere between us and the world. Neither entirely of the world, nor entirely of us… Art is made up of elements from both domains meaning that any attempt to construct the history of an art-form will necessarily tell us a little about our history and a little about the history of the world.
“Kim Longinotto” is not the first name that comes to mind when you think of historical analysis as most of her films appear to have been assembled with nothing more abstract than a hand-held camera and the truth. Whether exploring the social pressures perpetuating the practice of female circumcision in The Day I Will Never Forget (2002) or following social workers as they try to help women leave the sex trade in Dreamcatcher (2015), Longinotto is a filmmaker who has earned an international reputation for absolute documentary realism… which is precisely what makes Love is All such an exciting project.
Commissioned by the British Film Institute and originally broadcast as part of the BBC’s Storyville documentary strand, Love is All is an experimental documentary that takes a load of cinematic archive materials, combines them with a specially-written soundtrack, and tells a story about the evolution of love and courtship over the course of the 20th Century.
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Kim Longinotto is a documentarian whose time has finally come. Since the mid-1970s, Longinotto has been taking her cameras to corners of the world where women battle to survive cultures that are fundamentally hostile to their interests. Intersectional long before the term had been coined let alone entered the cultural mainstream; Kim Longinotto’s films explore the plight of women with a sensitivity to sexuality, race, class and culture that is never anything less thought-provoking. Though unabashedly moral, Longinotto’s films are never moralising… they forego easy villains and reductive narratives, focusing instead upon trying to understand the views of local women and placing those views within a broader cultural context. For example, Longinotto’s Divorce Iranian Style and Runaway depict Iran as a country where every deck is stacked against women but the women who feature in the films all seem to be aware of the hands they have been dealt and play them as well as they possibly can whilst continuing to obey the rules. Conversely, Longinotto’s Shinjuku Boys and Gaea Girls depict the men of Japan as absentee landlords and women as bold experimentalists who relentlessly push at the limits of conventional gender roles in order to find a place they can be themselves. More confrontational and optimistic than either set of films, Sisters in Law travels to Cameroon where a small group of female judicial activists use commonly un-enforced laws to put pressure on traditional practices and raise awareness about the treatment of women and children. Focused on the Somali community living in Kenya, The Day I Will Never Forget takes a long, hard look at the practice of female circumcision and asks it works, what it means, why it continues to be practiced, and why that practice might eventually come to an end.
The film opens with what could almost be called a best-case scenario. A young Somali woman prepares for her marriage as the local Somali community bustle around her; we see the wedding dress being fitted, we see the application of henna to her skin, we see her hair being made up. Then we are transported to the Somali equivalent of a hen night where the young woman’s friends and female relatives dance and sing in front of a groom who is manifestly trying his best not to be intimidated. One woman sings that Somali woman are always mistreated by their men and the point of the exercise becomes clear: Mess with one of us, and you will regret it. The Day I Will Never Forget is about that bond of community… for good and ill.
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Kim Longinotto and Florence Ayisi’s documentary Sisters in Law is best understood in terms of its relationship with Longinotto’s earlier films Divorce Iranian Style and Runaway. Divorce Iranian Style put Longinotto’s camera into an Iranian family court where Women tried to use their country’s sexist legal infrastructure to protect them from their abusive and manipulative husbands. Eye-opening in its depiction of Iranian female agency and moving in its uncompromising commitment to women’s stories, Divorce Italian Style is a powerful film made even more powerful by Runaway, a film about what happens when the system fails and women are forced to flee their family homes. Formally very similar to Divorce Iranian Style, Sisters in Law finds the British documentarian Kim Longinotto filming various legal proceedings in the Cameroonian town of Kumba where it has been seventeen long years since the last conviction for spousal abuse.
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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.
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FilmJuice have my review of Randall Wright’s documentary Hockney.
I approached the film without knowing a huge amount about the work of David Hockney and I left in pretty much the exact same condition. Like a lot of documentaries produced these days, Hockney tries to convince us that its subject matter is worthy of our attention without engaging either with the subject matter itself or with the cultural context that allowed the creation of said subject matter. The result is a film content to display the work of David Hockney without really bothering to say anything about it. In lieu of commentary, the film provides a string of anecdotes that are intended to be amusing but actually come across as intensely patronising:
Wright tries to establish Hockney as someone who was considered eccentric even by the lofty standards of the 1960s London art scene. Allergic to anything that might resemble a broader context, the film draws on anecdotes that all seem to revolve around the fact that Hockney is a gay northerner who happens to dye his hair. Far from establishing Hockney as a rebellious artist, this suggests that the 1960s London art scene was full of patronising snobs who are still patting themselves on the back for giving house room to people from Bradford. Oh darlings… it was all so mad in the 1960s! We all had long hair and pretended to be friends with ghastly northern yobbos who dyed their hair!
On reflection, the film reminds me quite a bit of Sophie Fiennes’ film about Anselm Kiefer Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow as both films are content to let the art speak for itself. The problem is that whereas Kiefer’s art is a huge installation that has transformed an old silk factory into a mad alien landscape, Hockney’s art is a series of twee and colourful paintings of his friends. On a very basic level, Hockney’s art is not as well served by the cinematic medium as Kiefer’s and, on a more critical level, Fiennes’ wordless approach to Kiefer’s art emphasises its opaque and inscrutable nature whereas Wright’s attempt to juxtapose Hockney’s paintings with anecdotes about the artist only serves to make his work seem insubstantial and whimsical.
The colonial period of Indonesian history ended with Japanese occupation. Aside from a reported 4 Million deaths, Japan’s wartime occupation of the Indonesian archipelago also saw the growth of a national independence movement that was only too happy to take leadership of the country when Japan surrendered to allied forces in August 1945.
Two days after Japan’s surrender, a nationalist leader and one-time Japanese collaborator by the name of Sukarno declared Indonesian independence only to be made president the following day. However, this independence turned out to be short-lived as the Dutch were quick to reassert their colonial rights and to press them with the aid of the British military. Sukarno would go on to steer Indonesia in and out of independence as European colonial influence collapsed and various administrative structures were unsuccessfully tried. By the 1960s, Sukarno was seen as something of a puppet master, a politician who clung to power by playing the army and political Islam off against each other with the help of his allies in the air force and his true powerbase, a vast democratic communist party known as the PKI.
In 1965, Sukarno’s grip on power was beginning to fade. The country’s economy was in free fall and while the president’s anti-Western rhetoric had made him friends in Russia and China, an unnecessary military confrontation with Malaysia along with almost complete domination of the government by PKI members meant that those out of power had increasingly little to gain by remaining loyal. In fact, the CIA was fully aware of this fact and was happily providing support and encouragement to what would eventually emerge as the opposition to the so called 30 September Movement.
The official history of the 30 September Movement (or G30S) is that it was an abortive coup launched by members of the PKI in an effort to topple the Sukarno regime. While declassified documents suggest that this might well have been an invention of Western intelligence, the abortive coup provided the army with an opportunity and an excuse to seize power. In the years that followed the abortive coup, the Indonesian army along with allied paramilitary and Islamic groups undertook what can only be described as a wholesale purge of the Indonesian body-politic. While records from this period are understandably patchy, experts suggest that over 1.5 Million people wound up in prison as a result of their supposed communist sympathies. Even though countless thousands would wind up being held in prison for decades without trial, these political prisoners can almost count themselves lucky as experts suggest that the purges also included somewhere between 500,000 and 3 Million extra-judicial killings. Though history records these killings as being part of an anti-PKI purge, the reality is that the army and their allies also went after intellectuals, trade unionists, women’s rights advocates and the ethnic Chinese: Anyone who posed a potential threat, anyone who saw the world in a different way. By the time the killings ended, Sukarno’s leftist regime had been replaced by a pro-Western government headed by Suharto and backed by paramilitary organisations that continue to play an important role in Indonesian public life.
Most documentaries are content to remain small films that tackle small issues in small ways. The larger the issue, the smaller the film generally becomes as documentarians abandon the complexities of the real world in favour of simple moral fables that are easily packaged and easily sold to an audience trained to confuse complexity with confusion and ambiguity with dissemblance. Joshua Oppenheimer’s twelfth film The Act of Killing is something different… it is a big film that takes on a huge issue and provides answers so big and so complex that watching it means forcing oneself to see the world in an entirely new way.
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FilmJuice have my review of Alex Gibney’s documentary Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God.
One of the most fascinating battlefronts in contemporary culture is the question of how the baby boomers will be remembered once they are gone. Raised amidst talk of their parents having been the greatest of all generations, the boomers have always been intensely aware of their own place in history and the need to impose some sort of narrative on their predictably chaotic lives. For a long time now, the baby boomers have been telling us that theirs was the most liberal and radical of generations: Neither empire-builders nor war-mongers, they came out against the Vietnam War, spawned the summer of love and demanded the right to live life entirely upon their own terms. That generation did it all and when the time came for them to ‘grow up’ they took their longhaired rebel logic with them into the boardroom and created one of the longest periods of sustained economic growth in the history of humanity. Nowhere is the desire to ‘fashion’ the generational narrative more evident than in Hollywood where B-movie Shitlord Roger Corman has been re-imagined as a visionary producer simply because Hollywood boomers need to believe that they rose to the top in a period of unrivalled openness and experimentation.
While inter-generational power differences mean that relatively few people are directly calling out the boomers on their relentless selfishness and toxic self-involvement, we are beginning to see some pushback in the form of prominent institutions falling into scandal and crisis. Indeed, the UK’s Operation Yewtree seems to be quietly re-inventing the swinging 60s as a time when men with jobs in the British media got to rape as many young women as they wanted while police and employers looked the other way. Turns out that ‘free love’ only ever applied to powerful white dudes. Alex Gibney’s documentary Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God is very much a part of this cultural battlefield as it is one of many recent documentaries to suggest that the 60s and 70s were a time when Catholic priests were effectively above the law when it came to the sexual abuse of children. Much like Kirby Dick’s Twist of Faith and Amy J. Berg’s Deliver Us From Evil, Mea Maxima Culpa suggests that child abuse was almost systemic as was the Church’s desire to protect the abuser at the expense of the abused.
The science fiction writer William Gibson once stated that while the future is here, it has not been evenly distributed and I think the same can be said of the liberal individualism of the baby boomers: Much like the revelations of Operation Yewtree, films like Mea Maxima Culpa suggest that while some people had a load of fun in the 60s and 70s, this fun came exclusively at the expense of people who have been denied the right to give their own impressions of what life was like at that particular time. Though Mea Maxima Culpa may lack the anger and analytic depth of films like Twist of Faith and Deliver us from Evil, it does do a singularly fantastic job of letting the voiceless speak for themselves, something that is particularly important given that the abused, in this case, were all deaf:
Gibney films his interviews with the survivors using an elegantly subdued form of lighting that beautifully emphasises the expressiveness of their faces. Also important is the fact that, rather than systematically cutting away from the survivors and having their words translated by non-deaf actors, Gibney keeps the audience’s attention firmly on the survivors allowing them to communicate their own feelings in their own words and in their own language. This choice of interview technique is important because Mea Maxima Culpa is not just about the Catholic Church’s attempts to cover-up decades of sexual abuse, it is also about giving a voice to people who had theirs taken away by a Church that claimed to have their best interests at heart.
As someone whose familiarity with sign language is limited to on-screen sign translation of TV programmes, it really was fascinating to see native signers using their own language to deliver incredibly personal and intimate truths. Sign translators are professional translators rather than actors and so they tend to translate what they are hearing in a way that communicates their personal detachment from the material (their facial expressions and body language tend to say ‘this is a sad bit’ rather than ‘I am sad’) and so seeing sign language being used in an emotive manner was really quite the revelation. Even if you are not all that interested in another story about the moral bankruptcy of the Catholic Church I think that Gibney’s interviews with the abuse survivors alone make this a film worth seeking out.