Before they are made flesh and born into this world, works of art exist as clouds of pure possibility. Every work is born of ideas and the creative process requires artists to make those ideas material through a combination of different elements including plot, character, style, and theme. While certain ideas bond more naturally with certain elements and certain combinations of elements prove more or less popular at certain times, it is the artist who sits at the creative mixing desk and shapes how their idea will move from possibility to actuality.
Humans may be flawed and finite creatures but commerce assumes us to be more broken than we are. One side effect of this great conspiracy of under-estimation is that the marketplace tends to interpret our natural desire for different stories as a desire for different sets of mixes. Thus, mainstream realist literature encourages us to yearn for stories that can only be told with the character slider all the way up while Hollywood encourages us to watch films that require a focus on plot and a narrow explosive-laden visual style. Even art house film falls into this trap by emphasising a certain set of stylistic tics and then giving us more or less character and theme. There may be sound economic and historical reasons for this elemental fetishism but it does tend to encourage the assumption that trade-offs between the different elements represent some sort of zero-sum game. Why else remain wedded to such absurd superstitions as the belief that style can be severed from content or that thematically complex works cannot be stylish, exciting and full of humanity?
The truth is that the basic elements of artistic composition relate to each other in ways that are almost completely unpredictable. Some films – like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker – feature no characters, follow no plot, manifest no interest in the world and yet somehow manage to work on every conceivable level. Other works – like The Force Awakens –feature lots of plot, lots of character, a limitless budget for the provision of visual spectacle, a real desire to use mythological tropes to say something profound about human relationships, and yet somehow manage to be boring, empty, and utterly disposable. One film that demonstrates how emphasising certain elements can have unexpected consequences is the (recently re-mastered and re-issued) cult documentary Grey Gardens.
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Back in 2013, the Danish-based filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer stunned the world with The Act of Killing, a documentary about Indonesia’s blood-soaked past and how political institutions had conspired to turn murderous gangsters into national heroes.
Whereas most serious-minded documentarians approach difficult subject matter through the performance of journalistic objectivity, Oppenheimer’s film about mass-murder took its stylistic cues from the people who did the killings. Secure in the knowledge that they continued to enjoy the support and gratitude of Indonesian political elites, the killers chose to celebrate their past using a combination of surreal dream-sequences and colourful dance routines resulting in a documentary that looked and felt like a beautiful fever dream.
According to Oppenheimer, his intention was always to make two films about the anti-communist purges and how contemporary Indonesia manages to function with a million deaths on its collective conscience. The Act of Killing is a film about the transformation of gangsters into heroes, its brash visual style a reflection of its subjects’ surreal arrogance. The Look of Silence, on the other hand, is a devastatingly quiet film filled with awkward silences, which is precisely what you would expect from a film inspired by people who have spent decades trying to keep their feelings under control.
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I grew up within gobbing distance of the Kings Road and can still remember teenaged punks charging tourists for photos and shitting in doorways opposite what is now an enormous McDonalds. I remember when postcards of London still featured punks and I remember when rising property prices finally rid Chelsea of its art school pretensions and replaced them with the cosmopolitan brutality of a first class airport lounge. I remember the aftermath of the British punk scene but I was too young to appreciate it… all I have to go on is what history has taught me.
Anyone who grew up in Britain during the 1990s will be familiar with the broad narrative beats of British punk history as laid down by the Sex Pistol–Media–Industrial-Complex: From the poorly attended gig at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall to their expletive-laden appearance on the Bill Grundy Show and on to mocking the Queen’s silver jubilee from the top of a chartered boat. We are familiar with these narratives because they are the origin stories of people who would later become very popular and very successful. The truth about the British punk scene might have endured the deliberate revisionism of Julien Temple’s The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle but it was never going to survive Alan fucking Partridge:
Narratives are easy to steal, history is easy to re-write and the truth will always be closer to the unformed opinions of people who were there than the polished anecdotes of those exact same people twenty years down the line. The truth about British punk may lie buried in interviews and half-forgotten fanzines but part of the truth about one corner of the LA music scene recently returned to DVD in the form of a swanky box set.
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Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini’s documentary Runaway is best viewed as a companion piece to their 1998 collaboration Divorce Iranian Style. Fusing the intense humanism of cinéma vérité with the analytical powers of feminist anthropology, Divorce Iranian Style is a fundamentally optimistic film about a group of women who use the unfair and oppressive structures of Iranian divorce law to improve their lives. I call Runaway a ‘companion piece’ to Divorce Iranian Style as while the earlier film is all about working inside the system to improve your lot, Runaway is all about what happens when the system fails and women are forced to flee for the sake of their own security.
Like all of Kim Longinotto’s work, Runaway provides a fascinating and genuinely moving portrait of a group of women who are trying to protect themselves from the failings of their society. In this case, the failing that women are forced to contend with is a vision of gendered sexuality that is as old as the hills and twice as tricky to erode.
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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.
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.
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.
When has Werner Herzog ever made a film that couldn’t be summarised as a journey into the abyss? Early feature films such as Even Dwarfs Started Small and Aguirre, the Wrath of God seem to revel in the existential savagery of the world while more recent documentaries such as Grizzly Man and Happy People: A Year in the Taiga serve as reminders that the world has little time for the collection of bourgeois conceits that we dare to call a civilisation. The question is never whether Herzog will turn his film into a meditation on the savagery of the world, but which tone he will select as a means of approaching it:
Sometimes (as with Encounters at the End of the World and The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans) he is a whimsical fantasist who recognises that silliness is the only possible response to a world so cold and drenched with blood.
Sometimes (as with Fitzcarraldo and Little Dieter Needs to Fly) Herzog is a humanist who marvels at our human capacity to overcome the savage injustices of life.
Sometimes (as with Nosferatu the Vampyre and Aguirre) he is filled with bitterness and cynicism by nature’s ability to dissolve humanity’s finest dreams.
If becoming a cinematic auteur requires a director to develop a recognisable sensibility and carry it with them from project to project then Werner Herzog must be considered one of the most prolific and versatile auteurs in cinematic history. Regardless of whether he is producing documentaries or feature-length narrative films, Herzog is one of the brightest jewels in the crown of world cinema but he is also starting to get on.
Back in the early 2000s, a string of moderately successful films provided the veteran director with a level of visibility that had long since been denied him. Thrust into the spotlight and transformed into a celebrity, Herzog made the most of it by adopting the engagingly self-parodic persona of an austere German filmmaker who muses on the savagery of the world with his tongue planted squarely in his cheek. Long-time fans would not have been surprised by this development as Herzog has always had a fondness for deadpan satire and self-mythologising (the documentary My Best Fiend is at least as full of made up crap about Herzog as it is of stuff about Klaus Kinski). The problem with this moment of visibility is that while it evidently made it much easier for Herzog to secure funding on his next project, it also encouraged him to remain Herzog the whimsical fantasist who undercut his meditations on death and destruction with talk of depressed penguins and mutated crocodiles. Given that Herzog was now reaching 70 and more visible than ever, I was concerned that the whimsical Herzog might become a permanent fixture. Would the bitter and humane Herzogs ever return or would it be nothing but dancing souls and iguanas on the coffee table until the end? Clearly, I needn’t have worried as Into the Abyss is a documentary that shows us an entirely new Werner: Herzog the humane socialist.
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FilmJuice have my review of Alex Gibney’s sports documentary The Armstrong Lie.
I went into this film with quite a good impression of Gibney as a filmmaker. I loved his award-winning Taxi to the Dark Side about the use of torture in the Iraq war and his Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room about the myriad ways in which elements of American government, business and media made the collapse of Enron possible. I love those films because Gibney takes a couple of big, explosive news stories and proceeds to do precisely the kind of stuff that the media reporting the stories refused to do: Explain events by embedding them in a broader cultural and sociopolitical context. When The Armstrong Lie applies this methodology to the world of professional cycling, the film is fascinating… the problem is that Gibney keeps allowing Armstrong himself to get in the way:
The problem with this film is that Armstrong’s story is not interesting enough to sustain an entire film. At the end of the day, Armstrong was an ambitious and aggressive man who did everything in his power to win, including cheat. His history of testicular cancer along with his deprived childhood may well account for his will to victory but anyone who looks at the amount of money he made and the level of fame he reached should be able to work out why he cheated and why he continued lying about it until he was eventually caught. Like most sportsmen, Armstrong does not appear to be imbued with a profound inner life and so any attempt to tell his personal story will inevitably come across as being rather dull and predictable
Lance Armstrong’s story should by now be familiar to anyone who is not living in a cave on Mars with their fingers crammed in their ears. Gibney originally set out to make a film about Armstrong’s return to the sport in 2009 and his claims to be running the race ‘clean’ for the first time since his return after testicular cancer. Mercifully, this film collapsed when it became obvious that Armstrong was still cheating and planning on using Gibney to help repair his reputation. The collapse of this earlier project forced Gibney to make a more interesting film as his desire to understand Armstrong’s motivations forced him to look into the culture of a sport that had effectively been sanctioning secret doping for decades. At its best, The Armstrong Lie really connects with the idea that Armstrong succeeded simply because he was a more talented and organised cheat than anyone else in cycling at the time. The problem is that, rather than focusing upon what made Armstrong such an effective cheat, Gibney keeps getting distracted by questions about Armstrong’s motivations and mental state. This proves incredibly frustrating as the whole point of the film is that Armstrong was always a wheel in a much bigger machine who managed to protect the machine by attracting all the attention to a single cog.
The film is filled with footage of journalists and sporting officials trying to hold Armstrong to account but they never get close to him. Every time someone asks about doping, Armstrong puts on a sad face, mentions his cancer as well as the work he did for cancer charities and moves the debate away from whether or not he cheated to the more tricky question of whether or not a journalist or a sporting official have the right to persecute a cancer survivor who raises millions of dollars for other cancer survivors. Indeed, Gibney completely misses the fact that Armstrong’s 2009 Tour de France saw him refusing to answer questions from anyone other than a disgrace former team-mate who had reinvented himself as a sports presenter. Even if such a man did manage to hold Armstrong to account with an awkward question, Armstrong could simply paint the journalist as a bitter hypocrite and thereby shift the discussion away from whether or not he cheated and towards the far more comfortable question of whether or not it was appropriate to even discuss that possibility.
Armstrong was a brilliant cheat because he managed to protect not only himself but his entire sport from serious scrutiny. He did this by magically transforming all questions about drugs in cycling into questions about whether or not it was appropriate to question the honesty of a cancer survivor and charity worker.
The question of how Armstrong managed this trick is actually very similar to the question of how a vicious paedophile like Jimmy Saville could not only escape prosecution but also enjoy a successful career in show-business. The trick that both Saville and Armstrong pulled is that they managed to position themselves so close to a series of institutions that it effectively became impossible to challenge the individual without also challenging the institutions they stood next to. If this wasn’t bad enough, the relationship between the criminals and the institutions was so close that the institutions wound up with a vested interest in defending the criminal who was using them as cover. How could the BBC, the Royal Family or the various charities he supported distance themselves from Jimmy Saville without admitting their close ties to a paedophile? How could the Tour de France distance itself from Lance Armstrong without admitting that it was their culture of rules-bending that allowed him to rise to prominence in the first place?
FilmJuice have my review of Dylan Mohan Gray’s documentary about the pharmaceuticals industry Fire in the Blood.
Since Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine demonstrated the existence of a large potential audience for documentary film, many have tried to use film as a means of raising awareness about particular injustices and so bringing pressure to bear on people with the power to make a difference. The problem with this approach to documentary filmmaking is that if the film becomes merely a means to an end then there is little incentive to put anything in the film other than what is strictly necessary to change minds and win support. As a result, films like Louie Psihoyos’s The Cove and Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me are often little more than rhetorical exercises that manipulate audiences into agreeing with their point of view rather than seeking to educate them about the nature of the world at large.
One of the challenges of documentary filmmaking lies in striking a balance between moral simplicity and emotional accessibility on the one hand and accuracy and educational potential on the other. Often, learning more about the world means losing touch with simple moral principles and realising that even the most hideous atrocities happen as a result of people acting in good faith. In the real world, people do not wear black hats and even if they did, it would probably mean that they were goths.
Dylan Mohan Gray’s documentary opens with a very simple moral equation: Millions of people in the developing world are dying of AIDS but while humanity has the technology to prevent those deaths by using retro-viral drugs to prevent HIV from turning into AIDS, these drugs are under the control of multinational corporations who would rather allow millions to die of preventable diseases than see their profit margins slip. Obviously this is a morally intolerable situation but humanity lacks the political will to nationalise the corporations and bring their resources under the control of institutions with the desire to resolve morally intolerable situations. As a result, the film follows a group of activists as they work to broker a compromise that will allow the morally intolerable situation to be resolved without embracing #fullcommunism. The great thing about this film is that, in seeking to explain why this situation came about, the filmmakers manage to educate their audience while never losing sight of principle. It turns out that the real problem with AIDS in the developing world is not patent law but the obvious corruption and cowardice of Western governments.
Turns out some complex truths are morally simple after all…