Friday, 18 June 2021

SHEFFIELD DOCFEST 2021

Coming to an end last weekend after a triumphant return to Sheffield's cinemas - whilst also running a virtual version for those unable or hesitant to travel - this year's Sheffield International Documentary Festival managed to offer its usual mix of film and arts, via shorts, features, Q&A's and films that pushed the boundaries of what documentary filmmakers can achieve. With 78 features and 88 shorts in the film programme it's literally impossible to watch everything available, but here's my highlights from the line-up.

Separated into the Rebellions, Rhyme and Rhythm, Into the World & Ghosts and Apparitions strands that come together in the International & UK Competitions, DocFest re-stated its identity and unrivalled Sheffield-iness (an absolute must in the era of online festivals) by including a Northern Focus strand with new and old documentaries showing life outside of 'that there London'. Opening the festival with Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson's Summer of Soul - with satellite screenings across the country - and closing with DocFest royalty Mark Cousins' latest film, Story of Looking, there were a number of other feature length docs that caught my eye.

Top of my list of must watches was Nira Burstein's much hyped Charm Circle, by far one of the most talked about and well received at the festival, and a worthy winner of the Audience Award. Focussing on Burstein's family and their life on the quiet street in Olympia, Washington that gives the film its name, we meet her mother and father as they face their ongoing mental health issues, something that has caused their home and wellbeing to fall into disarray. In many respects a 21st century equivalent to Grey Gardens' Little & Big Edie, mother Raya and father Uri could endearingly be called eccentrics at first glance, but through Burstein's eye and the use of old home video we see the toll that Raya's illness and daughter Judy's subsequent need for care has taken on the family, most notably and vocally by the stubborn and volatile Uri, who works through his own problems by writing and performing a number of bluesy tracks that are peppered throughout the film. An old rocker who crashed out of the real estate rat race years ago, he's a man at odds with the modern world, unable to comprehend daughter Adina's decision to marry into a polyamorous relationship with two non-binary people, something he sees as going against Jewish law.

As a portrait of a family who've struggled to adapt to the many challenges they've faced, it's full of charming comedic moments (Uri enters the film complaining about the crappiness of the makeshift belt he's crudely fashioned out of a plastic bag to keep his shorts up) and heart-achingly sweet snapshots as Uri realises he's in the wrong and tries to make up for it. Burstein's camera follows the Maysles' direct cinema approach at first, but in what is obviously a raw, personal film to make, she steps from behind the camera (and in the home video footage) to interact, not just document, her siblings. It's here that the film transcends into something more special, removing that disassociation her camera gives her, and us, and pulls us into this incredibly moving, relatable picture of family life. A must see.

In No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics, we're given a guided history of gay representation in comics (both in the industry and on the page) by a group of the biggest names around. The most recognisable name for a lay person such as myself - or anyone who's dipped their toe into film Twitter in the last decade - is Alison Bechdel, accidental creator of the Bechdel Test grade for female representation in film based on a 1985 strip from her 'Dykes to Watch Out For' series. Thankfully that's not the focus of No Straight Lines (in fact, I don't think it even gets a mention), and instead we're given a funny, informative history of queer comics, from Mary Wings's "Come Out Comix" of the 1970s and Howard Cruse's Wendel series taking on the restrictive nature of the "Comics Code" (a McCarthy-ist set of regulations that forbade the depiction of homosexuality) that saw their work sold in head shops and under the counter.

If you're unfamiliar with any of the key titles or artists featured, this stands as a great introduction to their work. It's impossible to deny the skill in the artistry displayed here, not to mention the personal nature of the writing that spoke to the next generation of writers and artists, many of whom who appear in talking heads to tell of their own stories and influences. As Cruse states in the film, "people should be able to do art about their lives", and you'll leave No Straight Lines feeling enlightened and hopeful for the future of the medium of comics.

Sheffield DocFest has long been able to educate as well as entertain, one of the clearest examples being My Name is Pauli Murray, that I went into knowing nothing about the central subject but that immediately gave me that feeling of "why have I never seen a documentary about this person before?". So incredible is their story, if it wasn't for the clear, documented evidence that it happened, you'd assume it was a work of pure fiction. A black, queer, what would now most likely be thought of as non-binary person, who was a lawyer and teacher, continually at the forefront of historic social change and went on to become an episcopal priest in their final years, Pauli Murray lead an incredible life that until now hasn't been given the spotlight it warrants.

Directed by RBG filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West (and including an interview with Ruth Bader Ginsberg herself among the many voices keen to tell of how important Murray's work was to them), My Name is Pauli Murray follows a similar biographical structure to their previous film, but with the added angle that Murray's life saw them arrive at various points in history, just before real change was about to be made. This is expressed to us via on screen text that hammers home the unjust world Murray lived in and how important the groundwork they laid was on shaping the civil rights and social justice advancements of the 20th century. With a stand-out subject that's incredibly timely and relevant to today's world, My Name is Pauli Murray is a statement of how much impact one person can have on the world, and should help see their work reach a whole new generation.

Now, if you'd have told me one of my favourite docs of the festival this year would be fronted by the former lead singer of Chumbawamba, I'd certainly have been surprised. Sure, I bought their anthemic single Tubthumping back in the late 90s (and still own a copy), but would a documentary about the rise and fall of the self-proclaimed anarchist pop stars really offer that much? As it turns out, yes, as I Get Knocked Down was a rip roaring ride through life on the outskirts of stardom, with that brief moment before the millennium where this little band from Leeds exploded onto the world stage and could lay claim to have the biggest song in the world.

More than just a bio-doc of the band, I Get Knocked Down follows frontman Dunstan Bruce (co-directing with Sophie Robinson) as he reckons with his role in taking the group - temporarily - into the mainstream by signing with major record label EMI and aiming for chart success, well away from their anarcho-punk roots that had served the band for the previous 15 years. Bruce does this by visiting his former bandmates (including Danbert Nobacon who infamously became front page news by dumping a bucket of ice over MP John Prescott's head at the 1998 Brit Awards, leading to his parents getting the amazing hate mail "I hope Burnley get relegated"), filmmaker Ken Loach and his former record exec in New York, all while being pelted by hurtful comments by his inner demon, depicted as a big toothed, bald-headed baby who stalks his every move. DocFest can always be relied upon to offer a great new music doc, and I Get Knocked Down is this year's hidden gem. Madcap, witty and formally inventive - what else would you expect from the frontman of Chumbawamba?

Elsewhere on the music doc front was Lydia Lunch - The War is Never Over, charting the career of the no wave singer and frontwoman for bands like Teenage Jesus & The Jerks, Shotgun Wedding and Retrovirus. If you're not familiar with Lunch this doc covers all the bases, from her riotous on stage performances to controversy baiting films made with Richard Kern that saw her strip nude and perform real sex acts as a backdrop to her powerful spoken word poetry. Labelled misogynistic at the time, it's hard to dispute that Lunch's self-expression wasn't informed by the hyper-sexualised persona she created. In her eyes, she was the exploiter.

Most of the film is - the still touring - Lydia showing she's not lost any of her edge, as she playfully flirts with men in her audience (and her band); but despite her impactful raspy vocals and extraordinary skill with a monologue, Beth B's film feels like it only captures a performance and never a true representation of the woman behind the act. It may be that Lunch has spent so long in character that the lines are forever blurred, but it's left her film feeling promotional rather than personal.

Top of the list of boundary pushing docs at this year's festival, Yael Bartana's Two Minutes to Midnight is a clash of performance and reality as several high ranking experts (and five actors), all women, gather in a recreation of Dr. Strangelove's War Room to debate the threat of nuclear war and the prospect of retaliation. Now dubbed the Peace Room, the female panel analyse the notion that having women in charge would lead to peace between nations, all while their President is conversing via telephone with the new Leader of the Free World - a Trump-esque lunatic called Arnold Twittler who's taken his finger of the 'send tweet' button long enough to hover it over the red button instead.

Smart and surprisingly funny, Two Minutes to Midnight is less a film than it is a documented piece of interactive performance art, complete with an audience that come into view as the low-angled camera circles around the room to show the vastness of the set. Although it's a fascinating thought experiment on the stance of superpowers, the prospect of nuclear disarmament and retaliation in the face of impending doom (and undoubtedly lacks some of the doomsday threat of when it was originally staged and filmed in 2017 and 2018), at 48 minutes long it just about reaches the limit the concept will allow, although I'd be intrigued to hear this panel debate other topics in a similar set up.

As well as music documentaries of forgotten bands ready to be re-discovered, DocFest can also offer up a stonking sports film from time to time, and this year's stand-out is unquestionably the Egyptian female weightlifters doc, Lift Like a Girl. Under the tutelage of former Olympic athlete Captain Ramadan - who trained his daughter Nahla to become a champion at the age of 15 - new teenage protege Asmaa and a group of young girls learn how to lift weights on a dirty, dusty empty yard in Alexandria, with the hustle and bustle of busy streets around them and local boys coming to taunt and throw rocks. As Ramadan turns the yard into his "Factory of Olympic Champions" with weights, gym equipment and plants in need of nurturing under the baking sun, Asmaa (affectionately nicknamed Zebiba/Raisin by Captain) is brutally chastised when she fails to make a lift, and serenaded when she succeeds. There's a real Burgess Meredith in Rocky vibe to Captain, a curmudgeonly old man who his young competitors yearn for approval from, not to mention the delightful, beaming, gummy smile he throws at them when they perform well at the various competitions.

Mayye Zayed's film has much to say about modern gender politics in sport and in Egypt (but also universally) with a traditionally masculine sport wholly occupied by these strong young women who are continually referred to by their coaches with male terms like "boy", told to "be a man" and to "grow a set of balls" when it's pretty clear that Zebiba and her friends are capable as they are. Filmed vérité style over the course of a few years and numerous championships, Zebiba's story is completely engrossing as she faces up to failure, tragedy and success. Ready to challenge your expectations, Lift Like a Girl has enough grit, determination and strength to be an inspiring - dare I say uplifting - sports movie.


Tuesday, 8 June 2021

IFFR - ROTTERDAM INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2021 (JUNE EDITION)

Wanting to celebrate their 50th year in style but hampered somewhat by that pesky pandemic, the organisers behind the Rotterdam International Film Festival (AKA IFFR) decided to split the festival into two portions this year, the first being in February and the second taking place at the start of June with some actual films in actual (socially distanced) cinemas.

With real world commitments taking hold of my life a bit more than the February edition, I didn't get to see as many of the June edition's films as I would have liked, but still managed to delve into what these new strands had to offer. Separated into Harbour, Bright Future, Short & Mid-length and Cinema Regained, it was in the last, most experimental, film history led strand where I found the most to enjoy.

Beginning with Nicolas Zuckerfeld's There Are Not 36 Ways of Showing a Man Getting on a Horse, which is pretty much what you'd expect it to be and then some, the film starts with an extended montage of men getting on horses, all clipped from classic Westerns of Hollywood's golden age and complete with cowboys, the cavalry, "Indians" and assorted lawlessness. For any fan of cinema, it's quite thrilling to see this selection of old Hollywood horse operas, and as the doc's scope expands out to a wider view of Hollywood storytelling, pairing up moments from years apart (covering the Raoul Walsh films 1915's Regeneration, 1964's A Distant Trumpet and many in-between) to show how much reliance there is on a set formula. The film takes a turn half way in, as Zuckerfeld's narration moves the film into a more academic realm as he discusses Edgardo Cozarinsky's book, Cinematografos, and delves into the Raoul Walsh quote that serves as the film's title. There Are Not 36 Ways of Showing a Man Getting on a Horse works best as an art film, the very wordy canter of the second chapter a dramatic shift from the visual gallop of the first, and is probably for film history buffs only.

My second film of this extended festival came from the Harbour segment, the big draw being a debut acting role for Zack Mulligan, AKA one of the subject of Bing Liu's excellent Oscar-nominated skateboarding documentary, Minding the Gap. With opening shots of American cornfields setting the scene, Death on the Streets introduces us to Mulligan as Kurt, a down on his luck almost 30-something with a wife, two kids and a lot of money problems. Doing his best to keep his head above water with day work in the local farming industry, he's a quiet man with enough dignity or foolhardiness to turn down the help offered by local well-wishers, including his father in law who creates fake odd jobs around his house in order to give Kurt a hand-out.

In no small part due to the heavy emotional baggage that comes with Mulligan after Minding the Gap, he acquits himself well in a role that has no flashy moments, only one man's quiet desperation as he looks upon the rock face of the gig economy. The film is awkwardly weighted, spending two thirds of its runtime setting up its last act that, although it limits the appearance of the impressive Katie Folger as Kurt's wife, actually gets close to delivering the message it's aiming for, with despair mixed with hope coming in the form of homelessness. Emotionally pitched somewhere close to Kogonada's Columbus and touching on some similar themes to Chloe Zhao's Nomadland, it's let down by a lack of narrative drive and some truly amateurish acting from the supporting players. A sharper script and a more ruthless editor might have given Mulligan a better film for his debut, but he's a likeable screen presence you want to root for.

With the promise that you'll never watch Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street in the same way again, The Philosophy of Horror: A Symphony of Film Theory uses old reels of the first two films to create something new, different and strangely compelling to watch. Manipulated, dyed, blacked out with pen and looking generally like it's been stored in a high school boiler room, this isn't a print that's in pristine condition, and is merely used as a vehicle for a deeper dive into film theory, featuring clipped excerpts from Noel Carroll's Philosophy of Horror book. Although a similar effect could have been achieved by using another classic horror film, like, Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead, for example, the whole reason why Freddy Krueger's first outing works in this context is the dreamlike trance it draws you into. Featuring no music or dialogue from the actual film and soundtracked by Ádám Márton Horváth's grungey, guitar feedback led soundscape, it's quite easy to be drawn into this weird world of freeze frames, repeated images and distorted, strobing faces.

With mouths agape like they're silently screaming out for help, the film occasionally moves on for a few frames, allowing Heather Langenkamp's fear to project towards us as the boogeyman looms into view. With its rhythmic, pulsating score and vivid colours, whatever has been done to this strip of celluloid has turned it into something almost Lovecraftian in the process, whilst also mimicking and replicating the mania of a dream state, albeit an occasionally nightmarish one. It's self-indulgent, using up portions of its runtime for an opening overture and an intermission, and although it might not deliver any coherent analysis on Wes Craven's horror masterpiece (and with a surprising lack of Krueger on screen), it's a bold, impressively realised visual experiment.

Last up from the Cinema Regained strand was Bill Morrison's The Village Detective - A Song Cycle. Given the treatment of the source material in the last film I'd seen, I went into Bill Morrison's film to find startling similarities, although in this case the distorted film was truly breathtaking to see come to life. Picking up where he left off with Dawson City: Frozen Time, the story of Morrison's latest film begins with an email he received from the great, sadly departed composer Johan Johansson, who heard about a canister containing four reels of film that had been dredged up from the sea bed by a lobster trawler off the coast of his native Iceland. With hopes from Morrison and the National Film Archive of Iceland that it would be a lost silent classic, it turned out to be Derevenskij Detectiv (The Village Detective), a 1969 Soviet film that was considered neither lost or rare. Diving headfirst into the history of the film and its star Mikhail Zharov, Morrison uses clips from "lost" films like 1917's The Fall of the Romanoffs and from Zharov's many big screen credits to chart his career and the history of Soviet cinema.

Considered at the time to be a star on the same level as Humphrey Bogart or Clark Gable, here Zharov stands in for all the forgotten actors from cinema's first 50 years, whose credits are reduced to a potted history in film history textbooks. Donning wigs and beards to play everything from prisoners of a regime to noted dignitaries, it's fascinating to watch his career across the decades, from young supporting actor in 1915's Tsar Ivan the Terrible to his role as Aniskin in The Village Detective, that became a regular role towards the end of his life.

As the film plays out for us - including the sprockets that fill the frame - it's almost impossible to decipher, but it's that unique power of cinema language that means we want to. Piecing the fragments together in our brain in order to understand the narrative (helped by David Lang's accordion score), what we're watching in its purest form is a collection of still images that lay underwater for decades, but that with the help of a bright bulb and some forward motion are able in all its damaged, corrupted glory to still tell us a story. It's a brilliant, breathtaking experience that will fill you with immense nostalgia for the format and a renewed hope that these films aren't lost to time. No-one's going to find a DCP drive at the bottom of the ocean in 50 years, and if they do it's not going to be of much use to anyone, but here, as we watch reach the end and watch the image deteriorate before our eyes, it's a beautiful thing to watch.

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And with that, sadly, my time at IFFR draws to a close. This was my first year taking part in the festival, and although I was only able to visit it in a virtual space, I look forward to hopefully joining them in person at some point in the near future. Overall, both outings had a great selection of new, exciting pieces of cinema, including many that I look forward to seeing find an appreciative audience that, with any luck, I'll be a part of.



Monday, 7 June 2021

LAKE MUNGO - LIMITED EDITION BLU-RAY review

Following the tragic drowning of teenager Alice Palmer, her family try to process their grief and guilt over her death, as well as uncover the source of the strange noises they've heard from her bedroom and around the house via the recording equipment set up by her brother Mathew. Told via a series of confessional interviews with Alice's family, their hired psychic Ray and those closest to them, we find that there was more to Alice's life and death than first appears.

If you're unfamiliar with Joel Anderson's found footage/psuedo-documentary classic Lake Mungo, don't worry, you're not alone. But I've got good news for you... it's not only excellent, but also possibly going to be your new favourite horror. Under appreciated on its initial release back in 2008, Lake Mungo has since taken on mythical status among horror nerds and film twitter due to its series of slow burn shocks, revelations and constant toying with our expectations. Largely dismissed at the time, perhaps due to its slightly odd title and an assumption it was another of the found footage knock-offs that sprang up in the wake of Paranormal Activity's break-out success, Lake Mungo stands alone as an inventive, truly surprising film that's not only a complete joy to discover, but also to share with a new audience.

And so it's good news the film has finally been given the home entertainment release it deserves, after a couple of releases with covers that were either nondescript or far too flashy (and with a tagline that got the details of the film wrong), we now have some new artwork and a limited edition "rigid slipcase" that's like catnip for any blu-ray collector. The latest in a line of impressive releases from Second Sight (both Raw and Dawn of the Dead are must buys), they've taken the opportunity to dig into the film and its legacy in the extras, via new interviews with genre directors like Host's Rob Savage and Spring/Synchronic's Benson & Moorhead. Also included on the disc are a couple of new video essays, interviews with the producer and cinematographer, and a pair of new and vintage commentaries.

As for the film itself, 13 years after its original release (and approaching ten years since I first reviewed it) it holds up as a film that could only have been made at that particular technological point in time, with grainy photographs and pixellated phone camera footage adding to the whole aesthetic that makes this feel all too close to real life. The cast - all unknowns unless you're oddly familiar with Australian serial dramas - are all immensely likeable and believable as a family, even if one or two of their actions push up against the limits of plot contrivance, clearly only there to give us another unforeseeable twist. But overall it's an expertly crafted film, delivering real shocking moments as it zooms into images we've previously seen to offer new revelations, with an ability to chill your bones like no other film has before.

Upfront about its reverence to David Lynch's Twin Peaks and its prequel film Fire Walk With Me (the family are even called the Palmers for chrissakes), the spectre of the troubled Alice - whether real, fake or somewhere in between - lives large in Lake Mungo, and as we find out more about her life in the lead up to her death, it's a compelling, surprising and often deeply mournful film, albeit one with the capacity to deliver real, long lasting scares that will live on in your mind once the film ends. A genuine cult classic that deserves to be loved by a willing audience - don't be fooled into thinking this is a mere clone of Paranormal Activity and the like, be brave enough to step into Lake Mungo cold and be completely swept up by it.

Verdict

4/5

SPECIAL FEATURES

    - Archive commentary by producer David Rapsey and director of photography John Brawley

    - New audio commentary by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Emma Westwood

    - Captured Spirits: An interview with director of photography John Brawley

    - Ghost in the Machine: An interview with producer David Rapsey

    - A Cop and a Friend: An interview with actors Carole Patullo and James Lawson

    - Kindred Spirits: Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead on Lake Mungo

     - Hosting Spirits: Rob Savage on Lake Mungo

     - Simulcra and Spirits: A video essay by film writer Josh Nelson

    - Autopsy of a Family Home:  A video essay by filmmaker Joseph Wallace

    - Deleted scenes

LIMITED EDITION:

    - Rigid slipcase

    - Booklet with behind the scenes photos, new essays by Sarah Appleton, Simon Fitzjohn, Rich Johnson, Mary Beth McAndrews, and Shellie McMurdo, and an interview with actor James Lawson by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.