REVIEW – West of Memphis (2012)

west-of-memphis-posterEvidently, I am passing through a documentary phase as FilmJuice have my review of Amy J. Berg’s West of Memphis.

I first became aware of Amy J. Berg through her film about the clerical abuse scandal Deliver Us From Evil. While the subject matter may now be reaching the point of saturation, Berg grabbed my attention by daring to place paedophile priests in the wider social context of a Catholic Church that hates homosexuality almost as much as it hates women. However, while Deliver Us From Evil was nominated for an Oscar, it also saw Berg drop off the map for a number of years and so I was very pleased to see her return to the director’s chair for this high-budget documentary about the West Memphis Three.

Given how impressed I was by Berg’s debut feature, it is slightly dispiriting to find her turning her hand to a film that is unadventurous both in terms of its form and its analysis. Indeed, much of West of Memphis‘s substantial running time is devoted to an extended recap of the ground already covered in the Paradise Lost trilogy of documentaries that have already been made about this particular topic. So while I’m sympathetic to the film’s aims and acknowledge that it’s a perfectly well-made and entertaining piece of documentary filmmaking, I do question the wisdom of making yet another film about this case. Are there really no other injustices in the world? If you are going to make a film about a topic that has already been covered by an entire trilogy of documentaries, I think it is important to do something new with the material and West of Memphis never quite manages to innovate:

There is no denying that West of Memphis is a worthy film and that this worthiness is utterly undiminished by the fact that three very good documentaries have already been made about this case. Nor is there any denying that Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and all the other people working to free the West Memphis Three did a profoundly good thing by using their money and celebrity to help three unloved and unjustly convicted men from Arkansas. There is no denying any of these things and yet these things cannot entirely compensate for the fact that West of Memphis fails to offer us anything that we have not seen before. Hollywood has a fondness for documentaries designed to overturn miscarriages of justice and though certainly entertaining and occasionally compelling, this film never quite compares to either the exquisite ambiguity of Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans or the campaigning psychological complexity of Errol MorrisThe Thin Blue Line.

It’s hard to be unimpressed about this type of documentary without also seeming unimpressed with the subject matter but I was unimpressed, it felt like a step backwards by a promising director.

REVIEW – The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (2011)

FilmJuice have my review of Goran Olsson’s archival documentary The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975.

Back in the 60s, a group of Swedish journalists traveled to California in the hopes of understanding the American mindset. Once there, the filmmakers slowly found themselves gravitating away from ‘mainstream’ America and towards the burgeoning Black Power movement centered upon the Black Panther party. Nothing much was done with this footage at the time and so it sat in a vault for several decades until researchers uncovered it and turned it into a film. At its best, Black Power Mixtape is shining a fascinating and historically important light on a radical political movement whose reputation has long been unfairly tarnished. Unfortunately, once the film moves beyond the footage of the Black Panthers, the problems start to stack up:

Sadly, once the Black Power Mixtape shifts its emphasis from the Black Panthers to the Nation of Islam and the War on Drugs, the documentary begins to lose both its precision and its power.  An interview with Louis Farrakhan is eerie in its fantastical delusions and the documentary’s uncritical attitude towards the idea that the Nation of Islam offers a disciplined lifestyle heralds the arrival of a number of bizarre conspiracy theories including the somewhat inconsistent view that the authorities both turned a blind-eye to the drug trade in Black areas and cracked down on the drug trade in Black areas in a way that damaged the community and undermined the pursuit of civil rights.

Equally unconvincing are the documentary’s attempts to articulate the Swedish perspective on the civil rights movement.  While the amusing footage of Swedish tourists travelling round Harlem in a bus suggests that there is something vaguely inauthentic about Swedish concern for American civil rights, the documentary never manages to articulate what it is that is particularly Swedish about any of the footage or the interviews. Frankly, these could have come from the vaults of any European television station.

There’s no denying that this is an important film and I can completely understand why Sight and Sound magazine made it their film of the month. However, in an effort to expand the film to feature length and widen the scope of its observations, the film puts out a number of thematic feelers (war on drugs, Swedish opinions of 60s America) that not only fail to pay off but actually muddy the waters sufficiently that they distract from the power and importance of the film’s opening third.

REVIEW – Level Five (1997)

THE ZONE have my review of Chris Marker’s Level Five.

Level Five is an example of what I consider to be one of the most under-rated of cinematic genres: the visual essay.  Much like Patrick Keiller’s Robinson films, Adam Curtis’ documentary series, Iain Sinclair’s London Circular (2002) and Terence Davies’ Of Time and the City (2008), Level Five presents an intensely personal and formally innovative take on its subject matter.  Addressing both historical and personal forms of memory, Marker muses on the process through which we assemble and disassemble ourselves in light of both new evidence and the fading of memory. Marker attempts to link these two forms of memory together by using video games and the internet as a form of thematic connective tissue but his obvious lack of insight into either the internet or the process of games design makes the film feel both hand-wavy and almost comically dated. And don’t get me started on the human elements of the film…

Laura was intended as a character filled with both wisdom and sadness, but the weakness of Belkhodja’s performance and the artificial nature of Marker’s script combine to produce a character who is seldom more than a smug and incoherent directorial mouthpiece. By failing to ground Laura’s sections in genuine human emotion, Marker not only unbalances the film but also wastes what could have been a powerful structuring narrative: Laura is cooped up in a small, windowless room endlessly picking over discarded memories and lines of code until, eventually, the memories begin to fade and so does she. When Marker arrives at Laura’s flat to find her gone, the message is clear: Laura has reconceived herself as another person, a person free from grief and free from the memory of relationships past.

An ambitious and visually striking attempt at addressing the role of memory in personal identity, Level Five is a frustrating watch as its failures simply cannot mask the depth and breadth of Marker’s talent.  For those interested in Marker’s perspective, I’d suggest picking up the recent Optimum combined re-release of La Jetee and Sans Soleil (reviewed expertly by Max Cairnduff at Videovista)

Robinson in Ruins (2010) – Mould on a Dystopian Corpse

Back in the 1990s, the filmmaker and architectural scholar Patrick Keiller made a pair of films about Britain. As much video essays as they were documentary films, London (1994) and Robinson in Space (1997) were concerted attempts to find the true spirit of Britain that had been buried by a decade and a half of Thatcherite rule.  Sensing that the wheels were coming off the Tory juggernaut and that a fresh start would soon be required, Keiller used the eccentric academic Robinson and a wryly-comic unnamed narrator to sift the wreckage in search of gold.  Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of Keiller’s intrepid explorers, the project was a political failure: Britain, much like its capital city, was a place devoid of any truth that could not be measured in pounds, euros, dollars or units of industrial measurement.  London and Robinson in Space are films about the defeat of the romantic spirit and the absolute victory of neoliberalism.

Over a decade later, Keiller returns with Robinson in Ruins, an unexpected addendum to the Robinson duology.  With the narrator dead and Robinson gone, the narration has fallen to an equally unnamed female public sector worker (voiced by Vanessa Redgrave) who discovers Robinson’s footage and notes in an old caravan on a site destined for re-development. Made at the height of the credit crunch, when the towers of Capitalism tottered and nearly fell, Robinson in Ruins is far less pessimistic than either London or Robinson in Space.  Eerily apocalyptic and as visually arresting as all of Keiller’s work, Robinson in Ruins suggests that humanity’s salvation may lie in communion with non-human intelligences.

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REVIEW – Night and Fog (1955)

Videovista have my review of Alain Resnais’ sublime holocaust documentary Nuit et Brouillard.

Reminiscent in both its imagery and intent to Billy Wilder’s post-War propaganda film Death Mills (1945), Night and Fog is only 32-minutes long but each and every one of those 32 minutes packs a hefty punch.  Not content with directly addressing the somewhat thorny issue of France’s involvement in the deportation of Jews, Resnais attempts to universalise the cultural significance of the Holocaust in a number of ways.  Firstly, (like many films) he suggests that Jewish people do not in any sense own the Holocaust and that the stain of the atrocity marks each and every one of us.  Secondly, (somewhat more controversially) he suggests that many of the people inside the camps were far from innocent victims:

Between this and his continued insistence upon ‘denunciations’ and ‘thievery’, Resnais suggests that concentration camp inmates were far from blameless in the construction of some of the worst living conditions imaginable to man. While the film in no way lets the Nazis off the hook, it does suggest that the capacity for inhuman violence is present in all of us and that all the Nazis really did was create an environment in which man’s inhumanity to man could express itself fully. So detailed is Resnais’ accounting of social dynamics that one could almost watch Night And Fog as a sort of time and motion study. Given the film’s almost academic tone, the horrific imagery serves as a means of grounding the film and of reminding us what it is that we are discussing.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, this review touches on many of the same issues as my recent review of Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s disappointing Sarah’s Key (2010), which is out this weekend.

REVIEW – Arirang (2011)

The Bright Lights Film Journal have my piece on KIM Ki-duk’s Arirang, winner of the Un Certain Regard prize at this year’s Cannes film festival.

Back in the late 90s and early 00s, KIM was one of Korean cinema’s golden boys.  Hugely productive and critically acclaimed the world over, he was held up as an example by a generation of young Korean filmmakers busy taking their first steps on the international stage.  Then, in 2008, KIM suddenly stopped working and dropped out of sight.  Arirang is an autobiographical documentary made by KIM in an effort to work out why it is that he cannot make films.  Now before you dismiss this as one of those self-indulgent ‘I’m writing a song about not being able to write a song!’ stunts, you should know that Arirang is not a straight film.  In fact, it ends with an outright lie. This suggests that KIM knows that many of his ‘reasons’ for not working are fictitious and so Arirang can be seen as being about a man intent upon confronting the lies that plague his life:

Much like the suggestion that he might be acting, the use of a song as generically miserable as “Arirang” serves to question the authenticity of Kim’s self-diagnosis. “Arirang” can be sung at any time because while it articulates, it does not deconstruct. Its diagnosis is so general that it applies to all ills, and the same might well be said of Kim’s diagnoses of his own miseries. Is he really unable to work because two assistants failed to follow his example? Or because he cannot come to terms with the fact that death may well be the end of life? These seem less like insightful diagnoses than convenient tragedies that can be draped across Kim’s problems in order to allow him to vocalise his misery without actually analysing it — convenient fictions that smell of untruth.

Arirang is a delicate, moving and intensely personal film about grief, depression and creative block.  However, while it may be breathtakingly honest, I wouldn’t believe a word of it.

Some thoughts On… Page One: Inside the New York Times (2011)

NB: Thoughts On… is new strand for this particular blog.  As I have been watching quite a few films recently, I have realised that while many films give me reason to ponder, not all pondering necessarily results in either a coherent opinion or enough substance for a full critical response.  So instead of keeping such thought to myself, I have decided to share my thoughts on the various films I see as well as producing more developed pieces.

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Currently on limited US release and in search of US distributors, Andrew Rossi’s Page One: Inside the New York Times primary concern is with the current economic state of the US newspaper industry and it asks whether there is still a place for an old media institution like the NYT.  Indeed, with advertising revenue drying up, classified ads moving online and more and more people getting their news online for free, the question of the Times’ continued existence needs to be asked if only so that we can work out why it is that newspapers should survive.  While Page One offers us an answer, I am not at all convinced that the answer it gives us is all that convincing.

Our guide through the issues surrounding the future of the newspaper industry is the NYT’s engaging media columnist David Carr.  The doc follows Carr about as he breaks stories, interviews new media tycoons, takes part in panel discussions and gives speeches at journalism conferences. A gruff scarecrow of a man whose odd physicality speaks to his past as a drug addict, Carr is absolutely savage in his defence of the New York Times in particular and print media in general.  In fact, Carr is so engaging a presence that it is difficult not to smile as he repeatedly swings a carefully sharpened and immaculately weighted hatchet at the reams of hyperbole generated by online mavens only too eager to dance on the grave of traditional print media. However, as engaging as Carr might be, I could not help but feel that Page One is only giving us half the story.

The problem is that Page One is a film that is utterly in love with its subject matter.  Rossi repeatedly stresses not only the NYT’s history but also its continuing role as a purveyor of truth and a guardian of natural justice.  Rather than giving equal time and equal weighting to both sides of the debate, the film portrays critics of old media as hyperbole-slinging crooks and straw men who take to the field of debate solely to provide the ferocious Carr with target practice.  So one-sided is the battle that one cannot help but begin to wonder why it is that Carr spends all his time grappling with paper tigers when the real beasts of the jungle are allowed to go about their business unmolested.  For example, in his book Flat Earth News (2008), Nick Davies points out that only 12% of the stories published in British newspapers come from actual reporters while 88% come either from recycling other papers’ stories or from cutting-and-pasting directly from press releases put out by pressure groups and business people. Once you realise that that 12% also includes stories generated through tabloid muckraking, the arguments put forward by Carr and his ilk begin to seem quite flimsy.  Indeed, there is no denying that newspapers such as the New York Times do fantastic work in breaking important stories and unveiling hidden truths, but what of the remaining 88% of the stories that grace their website?

The question of whether newspapers are a public good that are worth protecting even as their business models crumble is an important one not only for the state of our public discourse but also for the future of democracy.  By failing to answer any of the tough questions that can be asked of old media, Page One has not so much argued the NYT’s corner as sung its praises in the form of a funeral dirge.  Nobody benefits from this sort of one-sided cheerleading, least of all an industry in dire need of waking up and smelling the coffee.

Page One is arguably at its best when it is not trying to help as its most cogent and powerful arguments for the continued existence of print media are not the ones that it explicitly makes but the ones that it makes by implication simply by showing the NYT’s journalists at work.  In one brilliant sequence, the media editor and the foreign affairs editor discuss whether or not to report on a so-called ‘final patrol’ by US combat troops in Iraq only for the pair to reach the conclusion that the only people who are actually announcing the withdrawal of combat troops are the TV journalists that feature in the report and, because NBC are not actually at war in the Middle East, the story has more to do with TV reporters wanting narrative closure than it does with any real-world events of changes in policy.  As the various editors toss ideas back and forth, it is easy to see quite how much thought goes into the honing of an editorial stance.  These sequences suggest that there is far more to reporting than dumping a load of diplomatic correspondence on a website and the fact that the construction of editorial stances involve such careful deliberation and expertise is a powerful argument for the continued existence of what Clay Shirky refers to in the film as a professional media class.

The irony of Page One is that, had Rossi followed his own advice and left reportage to the reporters, this documentary would have been far more powerful an argument in favour of print media.  However, instead of allowing the NYT’s reporters to speak for themselves through their entirely admirable actions, Rossi attempts to fashion a narrative and, in so doing, weakens his own case by producing a documentary, which, though undeniably enjoyable, feels stilted to the point of hagiography.

Mugabe and the White African (2009) – How to Poison Your Own Well

In the 1880s a man named Cecil Rhodes established the British South Africa Company. Created along the lines of the somewhat more famous British East India Company and backed by a private mercenary army known as the British South Africa Police, the BSAC cut a swathe through Southern Africa waging wars, acquiring land and playing various local kingdoms and principalities off against each other.  By the end of the 1880s, the BSAC had received a royal charter and their lands lost their original political identities in favour of the name of Rhodesia.  For over seventy years, the British South Africa company oversaw the economic exploitation and development of the lands through a collection of White land and business owners.  Eventually, in 1965, Southern Rhodesia declared its independence.  This, as far as many white Zimbabwean land-owners are concerned, is when the rot set in.

Mike Campbell purchased the Mount Carmel estate in 1974.  He did so under the white-minority government of Ian Smith but when Smith’s regime collapsed and the country changed its name to Zimbabwe Rhodesia under a black government.  While many white land-owners left the country, either for Apartheid-era South Africa or ‘Home’ to Britain, Campbell stayed to work his land.  He had no problems with the government.  No problems until 2000 when the government of Robert Mugabe launched a programme of land seizures whereby the land of Zimbabwe would be returned to Black Zimbabweans who had long been disenfranchised first by the colonial rule of the BSAC, then by the rule of Ian Smith’s White-minority government and then by the inequalities of a capitalist system which, despite de-colonisation, left much of Zimbabwe in the hands of a few rich land owners.

Like many of the White land-owners who stayed on after de-colonisation, Mike Campbell was the victim of government intimidation and violence as one by one the old land-owners were forced off their land and the land was turned over to government cronies whose lack of interest in running the farms at all let alone for the common good has resulted in wide-spread famine and the economic collapse of what was once one of Africa’s most prosperous countries.  Where other land-owners sold below market rates and ran, Mike Campbell stood his ground.  He stood his ground by taking his case to the Zimbabwean supreme court and when that failed he took it to a South African Development Community tribunal in the hope of forcing the Mugabe government to respect his property rights over the Mount Carmel estate.

 

There is a fascinating political documentary to be made out of this struggle.  What is so fascinating about Campbell’s case is that it seems to serve as a microcosm for many of the moral and political issues surrounding the West’s relationship with its former colonies.  Indeed, should a government ignore property rights in order to redress an old economic injustice?  When that old injustice was motivated largely by a racist mindset, is it acceptable for a government to adopt a similarly racist mindset in order to redress the moral balance and undo the harms of the past?  If this sort of redressing of the moral and economic balance is morally acceptable, then can a government’s ends justify their means and are they compelled to obey bodies of international law when those laws protect the status quo?  Many political questions can be asked of Mike Campbell’s court case but Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson’s documentary Mugabe and the White African is not interested in asking them.

 

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