Kino Keeno

"Film is not the art of scholars, but of illiterates…"

Tag: documentary

No Home Movie

by Ben Diamond

Chantal Akerman lurking in the shadow of her mother, Nelly

I’ve already tackled a holocaust-themed documentary before on these pages – the more direct Night Will Fall – but here is something altogether different.  No Home Movie is a slow, thoughtful documentary about Chantal Akerman’s mother, Nelly Akerman, nearing the end of her life.  I was aware of Chantal Akerman’s work only through her 1975 three-and-a-half-hour epic Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, but I could draw parallels between the two, in particular the presence in both films of brutally drawn out still-frame long takes, which force the viewer to go through a sort of protracted inner monologue, and at the same time try to work out what these silent pauses mean for the filmmaker.  In the 40 years since Jeanne Dielman, Akerman appears to have kept her edginess, and her ability to challenge audiences.  It even crossed my mind to directly consider Nelly as a real-life Jeanne Dielman, especially as Chantal appears to have been heavily influenced, if not defined, by her mother, and her mother’s past.  Is it just me, or was there something in the kitchen tiles, reminiscent of that 1975 apartment?

Not much about the holocaust is revealed when Chantal talks to Nelly.  The one piece of concrete information is that Nelly and her husband escaped Poland and arrived in Belgium, only to be recaptured and sent back to Poland, where the horrors of Auschwitz awaited them.  And that’s about it in terms of directly related holocaust conversation in No Home Movie.  The rest is done through introspection and insinuation.  Chantal Akerman chooses to largely be absent in the film, as she is either behind the camera, with her back to the camera, or obscured by an object in the apartment when she chooses to create an impromptu mise-en-scène with objects having the effect of naturally occurring points of abyss in Nelly’s apartment.  Akerman is most present in the film when she’s behind the camera, crafting disturbing ambient-visual metaphors, such as long takes in the car, out of the window, of desolate Oaklahoman landscapes (reflecting the vicissitudes and the disquiet of her own mind), or running round Nelly’s apartment at night, with the lights off, Nelly out of the frame, desperately trying to retrace her steps and find something, or recapture something.  The apartment space itself is turned into a memory vortex with its own warping qualities, the air thick with nostalgia, but also stifling, as we are reminded with a long take chronicling Nelly’s respiratory problems, the pathology her demise already being mapped out.  In another shot Chantal simply gazes into a body of water.  Still waters run deep.

I see the film as an extended goodbye to her mother.  She says goodbye over and over when they finish their Skype conversations, or when either Nelly or Chantal leave the apartment.  These goodbyes often take minutes because each time is as if they are saying goodbye forever.  When Nelly is led out of the apartment by her carer, and Chantal is left their on her own, it felt like the grim reaper had come to finally lead Nelly away and finally separate the two.  By the end of the film I realised how often they’d been saying goodbye to each other throughout.  Is this film Chantal Akerman’s way of letting go?  By erasing herself from her documentary and instead focusing on her mother, is she in fact saying: this is who made me; this is who I really am?  I was reminded of WG Sebald’s novels in that the holocaust always present but rarely spoken about, explored instead through trauma and metaphors, scarred landscapes.  At one point Nelly’s condition is obliquely explained away by and off-screen interlocutor thusly: ‘She’s that way because of the holocaust’.  Need we any further direct storytelling?  Much more interesting to explore the everyday, and the effects the holocaust have had on the quotidian and mundane.

Of course, Chantal Akerman – directly, indirectly, whatever – is, or was, saying goodbye to us as well.  This is her last film.  Her mother died after this film was made, and Chantal took her own life a few weeks ago.  The screening, scheduled by A Nos Amours, was due to be the crowning piece at the end of a 2-year complete retrospective of Akerman’s massive, and massively influential, body of work.  Akerman herself was due to be there for a post-screening Q+A.  Tragically, that was not to be.  It was good to see so many Akerman devotees in the audience – the event was sold out.  An exhibition of Chantal Akerman’s video installation work is currently on at the P3 gallery and runs from 29 October to 6 December – http://www.p3exhibitions.com/.

People think it’s easy to point a camera at a landscape and shoot a static bit of footage and call it art.  With Chantal Akerman – it really fucking was art, though.  There is something wholesome and truthful about landscapes.  Her conversations with Nelly are edited and allude to greater truths, but landscapes cannot hide anything – their truth is evident in every pixel onscreen, gloriously unedited, a visual stream-of-consciousness.  I loved the long, still takes which bookended the film. The opening is simply of a tree blowing in the wind.  So much meaning in such a simple metaphor.  I can’t really describe one of the final long takes of the film, except to say that after puzzling over it for several minutes, it came to uncannily resemble another troubled landscape of sorts – the one on the cover of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures LP.  I don’t quite understand how much depth, both visually and in terms of meaning, Akerman managed to squeeze into a 2D image.  But she does.  Over and over again. In another take, a bucolic setting is in the foreground. A city, barely recognisable, hovers at the top of the frame.  As if to say – ‘forget about where the people are. All you need to know about what I’m trying to say is right here.’

Chantal Akerman – 6 June 1950 – 5 October 2015

 

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LFF 2015: I Am Belfast

by Ben Diamond

I Am Belfast (Cousins 2015, 84m)

Belfast is a ten thousand year old woman.  At least, according to Mark Cousins she is.  He has recruited Helena Bereen to embody the spirit of the city and to tell its story, from its beginnings of co-mingling of sweet and salt, to its recent Troubled history, and finally looking forward to the future.  The closest I can recall watching anything remotely like this was Terence Davies’s love letter to his Liverpool childhood, Of Time and the City, although the two really only bear superficial similarities – Davies’s work is constructed entirely out of archive material, whereas I Am Belfast is as much about the ‘now’ of Belfast as it is about ‘then’.  Or, perhaps, looking at the ‘then’ through the frame of the ‘now’.

Cousins and Bereen engage in a dialogue, literally – the two discuss Belfast, a co-voiceover to complement Bereen’s wanderings around the city, from the textile mills (once once of Northern Ireland’s strongest exports, the success built off the back of female labour), to the docks, and to the murals.  A well-chosen piece of footage from the early ’70s shows British soldiers using a water cannon unnecessarily on a group of justifiably angry women.  I think I caught a smirk from one of the soldiers just as the cannon is turned on, and I felt a flicker of rage, perhaps only a thousandth of the feelings of humiliation and injustice that, in one way or another, infected all the residents of this city during the Troubles.

Mark Cousins has an admirable talent for finding beauty in a city which has sort of faded away, left to lick its wounds.  Perhaps beauty is the wrong word. Perhaps it’s better than beauty, perhaps it’s simply something unique, an essence of Belfast – a combination of colours on a building that once stood tall and proud but has now been left unoccupied, the way the cranes at the dock frame what’s behind them, or simply the play of shadows on a residential street.  And, to go with these visuals, which tell a story of greys and browns, (nothing is a simple chiaroscuro in Belfast), a story of murky puddles and blurry images (fogged through the filter of Bereen’s cateracts), we have the voices of Belfast, which, in their lyrical and eloquent way, tell their own story.

I Am Belfast has bite to it too.  I admired the will to make things better, rather than to simply recoil in horror at the recent past.  The tale of three off-duty Scottish soldiers, lured from a pub and shot in the back of the head whilst taking a piss (‘two fluids leaking out at the same time’, very graphic, very shocking), a key incident at the start of the Troubles, is counterbalanced near the end of the film with a staging of the last bigot in Belfast, celebrated by the weird and the wonderful, who form the funeral procession.  A unique take on a unique city.

LFF 2015: Heart of a Dog

by Ben Diamond

Heart of a Dog (Anderson 2015, 75m)

“This is me, but it’s not me.  It’s my dream body.”  So Heart of a Dog starts, with an animated Laurie Anderson in a dream sequence, narrated by the real Laurie Anderson.  Ah, bloody hell, I think.  It’s one of those.  And whilst it was one of those, I got completely behind this film.  Poor old Laurie Anderson.  She’s had a sort of triple-whammy of death – her dog, her mother, and of course, the late, great, Lou Reed, her partner.  So it’s a documentary, a very creative documentary, about death – how we deal with death, and what happens when we die.  But it’s more than that.  It’s about time, it’s about how we tell stories, and it’s about life in a world of surveillance, post-9/11.

Laurie Anderson appears to be a bit of an all-rounder.  Clearly an accomplished filmmaker, we are also treated to musical compositions, her narrative, delivered in a captivating style (it actually reminded me of the slightly sinister voiceover in Desperate Housewives) reading like a long-form poem, and her elaborate paintings which imagine her dog in the various stages of the Bardo, the Tibetan equivalent of a sort of purgatory.  There’s oodles of invention and daring concept in this film, including interludes of pure text on the screen, run out of order and flashing up very quickly, a see-what-sticks approach.  What, in the hands of some, might have ended up as a whimsical mélange of ideas, in Anderson’s, becomes an enlightening and perceptive essay.

Some of the connections she draws might sound silly, but in the film become utterly thrilling and convincing.  She takes you one way, and then steers you in completely the other direction, then draws things together that make you marvel at her skills of perception, her unique worldview.  She talks about the moment her dog, Lolabelle, was attacked by hawks when they were out for a walk – they mistook her for a rabbit.  The hawks realise their mistake and retreat – but the dog is left with a new fear – they can come from the air, too.  A whole 180 degrees of extra threat for Lolabelle, who, although territorial before the incident, now looks up at the sky constantly as well as scouting on the ground.  Anderson then swerves back to 9/11.  We, too, realised that they can come from the sky.

Some bits of this film worked for me and some didn’t.  I have to admit I got slightly lost during the extended Tibetan instructions for what to do when you die.  I think the film succeeded best when it was simply Anderson telling a story – something which she clearly has a gift for.  And she has important things to say, too, about how we tell stories, and the things we leave out.  Heart of a Dog never feels didactic.  It feels more like the musings of a wise elder, which you can take or leave.  At one point Laurie tells us that she tries to feel sad, but not to be sad.  I’m not even sure what that actually means, or how you could achieve it, but it sounds significant, and I’m going to give it a go.

By Our Selves

by Ben Diamond

By Our Selves (Kötting 2015, 83m)

By Our Selves combines the considerable intellectual and creative talents of director Andrew Kötting and writer-psychogeographer Iain Sinclair as they attempt to recreate John Clare’s 80-mile, 4-day walk, from the lunatic asylum in Epping Forest where he was being interned, to Northamptonshire, looking for a lost love who had actually died some years ago.  Sinclair wrote a book about this in 2005 called Edge of the Orison, but this time they have enlisted the help of actor Toby Jones to embody the spirit of Clare, as well as his dad, Freddie Jones, who reads some of Clare’s poetry (as he did for a BBC dramatisation of Clare’s work many decades ago) to enhance and enchant the sonic backdrop.  Toby Jones is accompanied on his walk by a man dressed as a straw bear, for reasons that are explained in an illuminating conversation with a Clare expert towards the end of the film.  I would say the film is roughly one third documentary, one third re-enactment, and one third is simply left to random chance, edited together to make a moody, unique blend.

I was very impressed with Kötting and Sinclair’s last film, Swandown, where they climbed into a swan pedalo at Margate and made their way to the main site in east London for the 2012 Olympics.  The stylistic hallmarks of Swandown are present here, but somewhat exaggerated, perhaps to reflect the state of Clare’s troubled mind.  This time they have chosen to film in stark black and white photography, but continue to expose the underwiring of the filmmaking process – quite an important aspect of the film is the sound, which is often shown being captured by the boom-mic operator onscreen.  Confusingly, the sound that is being captured onscreen often does not correspond to what we are hearing simultaneously.

Sound and vision are set free here.  In a beautiful single take, a handheld camera is left to simply float upwards, high up into the trees, slowly arc 180 degrees, and then descend, upside-down, back to the forest floor.  Repeated sonic snatches recombine and gain new meanings with repeated takes.  The horrendous audio snippet of someone saying “John Clare was a minor nature poet, who went mad” is repeated over and over again, taking various tragic and comedic turns, until it simply becomes mental wallpaper.

Why John Clare?  Because he fits with Sinclair’s agenda and interests.  A working-class poet.  A ‘mad’ poet.  A poet working at what Professor Kövesi in the film implied was ‘the end of the poetry era’ (Sinclair, a poet himself, operating well after the era of the poet).  A poet who took refuge in the flora and fauna.  And a poet who appeared to be operating on some other psychic plane, embodying the spirit of others, notably Lord Byron.  A brilliant conversation with author and wizard Alan Moore turns to his native Northamptonshire, a psychic black hole in Albion, where the dead come to rest, and people never leave.  Sinclair has an interest in ley lines and is no doubt fascinated by the pull Northamptonshire had on Clare and others.

But perhaps the most beautiful moment in the film is simply Freddie Jones trying to remember Clare’s most famous poem, ‘I Am’.  He starts confidently, stumbles, and then triumphantly picks up again at the final stanza.  An amazing poem, and just for a second, you can see Clare glinting in Jones’s eye.

Sacro GRA

by Ben Diamond

Sacro GRA (Rosi, 2013, 90m)

Sacro GRA (Rosi, 2013, 90m) is a film about space.  Specifically, the space and spaces of the ‘no-place’, a purgatory of sorts – a no-man’s-land, clinging to the titular ‘GRA’ or ‘Grande Raccordo Anulare’, the ring road that surrounds Rome.  It’s the counterpart to the glitzy and decadent, but equally soulless Rome depicted in The Great Beauty, with tarmac, rather than champagne, coursing through its veins.

It starts on the road itself, inside an ambulance, where a medic keeps an old man warm who has fallen into a canal, whilst the ambulance speeds its way along anonymous stretches of highway.  The GRA itself is established as both a vessel for the business of death – the network through which ambulances ferry people to hospitals, and also a source of death in itself – later on, the paramedics attend a car crash that has occurred on the ring road, where the victim displays a morbid sense of humour, the scene itself a distillation of the internal machinery at work at the heart of the film – finding redemption, beauty, and humour underneath the noise and the mundanity.

Elsewhere, the people and scenes the film visits also explore the the concept of death, albeit in a more metaphysical, death-in-life way, the inhabitants of these places consigned to live out their days as lonely ghosts who seem to have absorbed their surroundings and as a result offer cryptic insights into what such a life does to you – how you develop a philosophy to deal with your lot.  Sacro GRA is a documentary, but everything is carefully framed, set up, directed, premeditated.  Characters rarely move in the frame, and their monologues, each a distinct vignette, are given added layers and meanings by the detritus that surrounds them.  If they are accompanied by other people in a scene, they’re often not being listened to.  Each person is a singularity, a law unto themselves.  They are treated by the camera with dignity, but also with a coolness and sense of detachment.

I don’t know where the filmmakers found these people, but they are, without exception, fascinating.  No questions are asked from behind the camera and no interviews as such occur, leaving an air of mystery as to each person’s circumstances, how they came to be who they are, what led them to do what they are doing.  The GRA is depicted as a barren place, and it seems to have some mystical qualities which inexplicably draw people in and render them infertile, as is the case of the two tabletop dancers who perform at a horrible, unglamorous dive bar, scantily clad but distinctly unsexual and disinterested (the patrons of the bar seem fairly nonchalant about the whole business too), their dance having less to do with fertility, and more to do with money.  Elsewhere we catch sex workers, but during their downtime, where their existence appears to have been nullified, purposeless and shooting the breeze in an existentialist, absurdist manner which would feel at home in one of the more banal moments of a Beckett play.

Such is the film’s insight and craft that waves of horror and creeping dread wash over you, without anything particularly horrifying or dreadful being revealed.  In fact, such is the relentless exposure to death in all of its forms, both real and imagined, that it takes on a beauty all of its own.  ‘Death is an artform’ might be this film’s manifesto.  When inhabitants of flats look out of the window, they don’t find horror in other people, because there’s no-one around, just flats in the building opposite, with the lights on – but nobody home.  Instead, the true angst comes from the wasteland, the empty space – and the ringroad beyond.  Fenced out, but also fenced in.

Night Will Fall

by Ben Diamond

Dark humour. It’s an interesting term, and an interesting phenomenon. I would describe it as using serious and upsetting scenarios or themes as fodder for comic effect. But, at the same time, the person employing the technique has to show a level of empathy and understanding which turns the misery we see, or read about, into something universal. This, in turn, allows us to laugh, and appreciate the attendant ironies. It is also this sense of empathy which distinguishes it from pure schadenfreude. It is a sophisticated technique, hard to pitch exactly right – the pitfalls being that when deployed it either veers off into total existential hopelessness (not funny at all), or, on the other hand, it is too conventionally funny, and therefore ceases to pack a punch when it comes to the true awfulness underlying the situation in question.

For all the failures of Martin Amis’s latest novel, ‘The Zone of Interest’, you could not accuse him of looking at The Holocaust from a tired angle. And he is brave to use dark humour as a way of understanding, filtering, and processing those awful events – perhaps brave in a way only someone who isn’t Jewish would allow themselves to be, or could get away with. The novel derives much of its twisted and awful comic sense from the fact that the events unfolding at Auschwitz are mere background details to the central ‘protagonist’, the amoral German officer Angelus Thomsen, who derives no pleasure from the atrocities he is implicit in, but at the same time feels no real shame in what he is doing either. Instead, he is more interested in the camp commandant’s wife, Hannah Doll. Thence the dark humour: the huge, unignorable genocide, the thing that no-one can ever forget, is eminently ignorable for Thomsen – a mere inconvenience, something that rattles around in the back of his mind. In contrast, the romantic interest for Thomsen, of no interest to anyone other than himself, is blown up in the narrative to his primary interest, never mind the advancing march of the Russian army or any moral considerations about his involvement in the running of a concentration camp. His sense of proportion is all wrong. Ha Ha.

It’s OK that we’re still thinking about The Holocaust. It’s OK that people are still writing books about it, and making films about it. We’ll probably never stop doing that. As WG Sebald said, “No serious person ever thinks of anything else.” But Night Will Fall (Singer, 2014, 75m), curious in its failures if nothing else, seems to duck all the interesting questions, and hides behind shocking images, some of which are new, and most of which, in one form or another we have seen before. To simply inform us about the atrocities of the concentration camps doesn’t cut it for me, I’m afraid. Save it for a BBC documentary.

It’s one of those films where you go in thinking you know what you’re in for, and halfway through you realise it’s not the film you expected. To be wrong-footed like this can be refreshing. But Night Will Fall doesn’t seem to want to wrong-foot its audience on purpose. It just runs out of intellectual steam, or courage, to do something different, halfway through. It bills itself as being a film about a film – it’s a documentary about the joint British-American attempts to make a film after WWII using footage soldiers shot during, and shortly after, the liberation of the Nazi work camps and death camps.

There’s so much here that could’ve been looked into. How did the US, British and Russian soldiers, trained in the use of camera equipment specifically so they could document the German atrocities, feel about their job? This film doesn’t really tell us. Instead we hear from the editors in London who received the footage and watched it for the first time. They were all shocked by what they saw, apparently. This seems like a fairly obvious revelation. All the interesting details are glossed over – Alfred Hitchcock’s involvement in the project, for example, and the tussle for directorial control over the film once the US and the British realised that Germany was a potential Cold War ally, and one who they didn’t want to demoralise too much by bludgeoning them over the head with evidence of the atrocities that they were all complicit in.

Instead, we are shown lots of footage from the original documentary, all of which is horrifying – skeletal corpses piled high in mass graves – but all of which looks familiar. It seems both gratuitous and unnecessary, and also something to hide behind. The film, at times, feels like it would be more at home in the archives of the Imperial War Museum or British Library, largely because of the reliance testimonies given by the survivors. Singer often falls back on these interviews, playing it safe with more familiar and comfortable territory. It feels like a film which is deeply insecure about its own identity.

We’ve passed the stage in Holocaust filmography where we must come face to face with the shocking and the visceral.  We need to move on to other ways of seeing.  At one point a British officer being interviewed (as new footage, not footage from the post-war project) is talking about how the women, once liberated from the camps, appeared to return to ‘some semblance of normality’ surprisingly quickly. He says, somewhat patronisingly, that within weeks they were cheerfully nattering to each other whilst deciding which clothes to wear. But, of course, how could they have any semblance of normality within weeks of being liberated from a concentration camp? Some Holocaust survivors that are still alive today still struggle to feel, or behave, in a ‘normal’ way, let alone a few weeks after liberation. It seemed to me, watching the film, that the officer was desperate to impose his wish for normality on the situation – the alternative was too awful to think about. But he isn’t pressed on this point of view. Indeed, this level of emotional subtlety seems to be out of reach for Andre Singer.

I’ll leave you with a YouTube clip from a much more interesting and bold film about The Holocaust: American Radical: The Trials of Normal Finkelstein. It is everything a documentary should be: puzzling, engaging, electrifying, interesting and unsettling. Norman Finkelstein is a Jewish academic, controversial because of his anti-Israel views, and because he operates within an academic system with a strict line on the conflict, which is dogmatically adhered to by the academic mainstream. The clip documents one of the most tense moments on his book tour, where he takes a strong line on the inappropriate nature of the invocation of The Holocaust when discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict. A brilliant orator, he takes on a hostile audience with many angry Jewish people amongst them. You wouldn’t have thought that there could ever be such a palpable sense of danger present in a lecture theatre. What a fascinating angle American Radical took – Holocaust and Israeli history being chewed up and spat out again by a Jew, who himself is a fascinating character study. If only Night Will Fall had been so bold.