When the sweet, feel-good The Angel’s Share was released in 2012, critics all asked – where has Britain’s foremost firebrand and social realist gone, at a time when we most need him? Well, he’s returned. Well and truly.
Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45 is a wonderful, unremitting archival documentary that steadfastly refuses to sit on the fence. What are we doing?, it asks. What next? Bold, political and polemical, it dares to make an explicit case for change, reminding us of a time in the not-too-distant past when a set of ideals helped build a welfare state which many of us now take for granted as it is insidiously dismantled while we look the other way, distracted by one-eyed dancing mascots and an old woman in the rain.
The Spirit of ’45 grabs our attention. It raids the riches of the British archives and reconstructs a narrative, which – if selective – is nonetheless compelling: The post-war election, the rise of the labour party, Churchill’s decline and Attlee’s exciting rise to power, the nationalisation of utilities and major industry, the beginnings of a truly socialist Labour party manifesto. It goes on. Figures clouded in public memory are re-animated, the most moving being Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan, the health minister who championed the working classes in the post-war years. Cut with interviews with retired doctors, economists, Tony Benn (a category of his own), miners, dockers, steel workers – all of whom witnessed the seemingly tectonic social changes of the ‘40s– Loach mines the archives of a British social conscience now obscured by neoliberal rhetoric.
It is, of course, a re-dreaming of post-war British public space, but in its nostalgia the film prompts us to discover what shared future we’ve lost. As an old steel-worker describes the council housing he was given after the war, and quotes from the Labour party manifesto appear onscreen, declaring that public space for culture and education should be integrated into the new estates, Loach prompts us to ask; if this was possible in the ruins of the great war, what fallacies have led us into this age of austerity? What ideology dressed up as pragmatism have we believed (or been too inert protest against) that has led us to see police battering students over education, deep cuts to welfare, and public spaces and institutions being treated like businesses, when any cretin can see that the logic of business and capital is a broken, vicious ill to society.
Some critics will call the film propagandist (for example), which it undoubtedly is. But it couldn’t be anything other, for as Mark Fisher writes in Capitalist Realism, “it is impossible to conceive or fascism of Stalinism without propaganda – but capitalism can proceed perfectly well, in some ways better, without anyone making a case for it”. The Spirit of ’45 – a socialist, collectivist spirit – can only be presented now in these terms, because capitalism is the all-pervasive norm. Despite an astronomic crash in 2008, and as countries in the EU fall, one by one, our policymakers and politicians blindly lead us further into the mire. Loach’s film dares to expose this as pure ideology, not simply the sorry necessity of the status quo, and for this the film should be celebrated, and beamed to every home in the country.
“Freedom of speech is always under threat, every day, worldwide.”
Something you might once have found Dick Cheney saying, perhaps, as he lowered his visor and prepared to blast his way through ranks of dangerously insurgent women and children obscuring his view of the oil fields, but in this instance uttered on camera by a Swedish conservative politician and ringing with the gravitas of a series of ridiculous – but very serious – events that have preceded it.
Historically, truth has resided with power. In our modern society money is the real power – therefore ‘truth’ as it will be remembered is usually pretty easily bought. If this assertion scares the crap out of you, you’ll want to watch Big Boys Gone Bananas!*.
A documentary about a documentary – or more accurately the staggering response to a documentary on the part of one of its subjects – this brilliant film details the aftermath of the LA Film Festival in 2009, where Fredrik Gertten’s attempts to show Bananas, his movie about the legal struggles of Nicaraguan workers against the multi-national fruit corporation Dole, led to the threat of a lawsuit being filed by Dole against his tiny production company for defamation. All this despite a) the CEO of the company having basically admitted its guilt in court, and b) no one at Dole having yet seen the film.
That was only the tip of the shitberg. Dole then set about waging a dirty campaign in an American media only too willing to propound their side of the story without any apparent investigation (suggesting the mainstream American media is now chock full of Scott Templetons, and hardly any Gus Haynes’).
Some of what is in this film is petrifying, some of it incredibly hopeful, but it’s always compulsive viewing. Highlighting the insane amounts of influence that multi-nationals wield, it is at times a terrifying glimpse into the way life could be if we, as a collection of oft-disinterested or apathetic individuals, don’t start being more proactive in making ourselves heard. In the decade when American corporations were granted the right to make political donations under the First Amendment (yes, the Amendments reserved for people) this film is not just relevant, but should be compulsory watching for anyone with a passing interest in our future.
You may have never seen ballroom dancing in person, but you’ve probably seen Strictly Come Dancing (or Dancing with the Stars, if you’re in the US) and noticed that it’s actually really difficult. In addition to remembering all the steps, you’ve got to be fit, you’ve got to make it look meaningful, and you’ve got to trust your dancing partner. Ballroom Dancer is a documentary about a professional duo, Slavik Kryklyvyy (go on, say it) and Anna Melnikova, struggling with all the aforementioned things, under enormous pressure – they’ve just gotten romantically involved with each other, and this is Slavik’s last chance at a comeback after ten years out of contention.
Slavik reminds me of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Swedish footballer – yes, they’re both of Eastern European descent and happen to wear their long dark hair slicked back into a knot, but they both have an intense, virtuosic charisma about them, possibly informed by their martial arts training. Slavik lives and breathes dance, an exacting perfectionist about his craft; but at 34, he’s intent on proving that he’s not past his prime. Anna is younger and certainly in her prime, as the current amateur Latin champion; she’s formidable yet vulnerable, and struggles to cope with Slavik’s anxieties and dominance of their relationship.
Their romantic and professional partnership is the centre of the film, slanted towards the perspective of Slavik. We often see the two in their hotel room hanging out in addition to seeing them during rehearsals and competitions, so we can observe their chemistry and communication candidly, on and off the dance floor. We come to know their individual personalities through observing their separate physical and mental preparations for competitions; Slavik pushes himself to breaking point, while Anna seems to be more circumspect. Their egos clash constantly, and we see them striving to negotiate between their individual needs and the needs of their partnership. Anna exasperatingly comments during one argument that if you don’t want to deal with partners or emotion, ballet rather than Latin would be a better fit.
The film is an intimate portrait of the couple, going far beyond the usual fly-on-the-wall perspective of documentaries to construct a character-driven narrative. We’ve got Big Brother-like access to their lives, augmented by the candid reflections shared with their coaches and trainers (so there’s no need for anyone to speak directly to camera). The Danish directors, Andreas Koefoed and Christian Bonke, say the film was ‘shot as cinema verite but [was] edited like fiction’ and indeed, while watching Ballroom Dancer, it’s almost surreal to think that there was no script, that these are real people and this actually happened between them. It doesn’t hurt that they’re both attractive and emotive, like hired actors, but it’s the authenticity of their story that’s so compelling – this isn’t light, Dirty Dancing-like fare. Ballroom Dancer’s brutally honest depiction of a couple’s struggles is refreshing to see onscreen, whether you like ballroom dancing or not.
Ballroom Dancer is out in selected cinemas now. Contributor Cathy Landicho can be followed on Twitter @ConfusedAmateur.
Cinema’s power often lies in a very direct form of emotiveness, with the immediacy of the image being the perfect foil for a good story. But the simplicity with which this directness operates requires a fine balance. It’s all too easy to mishandle the power at one’s disposal, to bludgeon an audience’s goodwill into pained submission under a hail of grandstanding sentiment. This is especially true in the ‘Life Story’ genre. Documentaries and acted biopics which bear this scary moniker often come generously ladled with words and phrases like ‘inspiring’ and ‘heart-warming’ as directors amp up every aspect of tragedy and triumph in human life, screaming ‘FEEL!’ at the audience as though we were already cold in our seats, vacant and resigned at this still-early stage in the emotional evolution of the human beast. In most cases, ‘vomit-inducing’ would be more of an accurate description of these films.
Great credit, then, to Jesse Vile, director of Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet who has made a film which impacts in a meaningful way whilst keeping any potential melodrama or sensationalism firmly outside of the frame. Jason Becker isn’t manipulative, it isn’t preachy, and most importantly it isn’t patronising. Jason Becker isn’t dead yet, and he doesn’t want your sympathy.
In 1989, small-town teenager Becker, a ridiculously talented guitarist, was about to make the step up from barely-known prodigy to big time player. David Lee Roth, whose band had launched the careers of first Eddie Van Halen and then Steve Vai – the established Best Guitarists in the World in the ‘shredder’ mould – had heard Becker playing and wanted him to feature on a new album and a tour. This was literally ‘it’ – and nothing more than a culmination of years of obsessive practice combined with a natural talent in a nurturing family environment, although these are the kind of dreams we hardly dare hope for even in our wildest moments. The album was recorded and the band were hitting the studio in preparation for the next stage. Around this time what had begun as a twinge in Jason’s leg was causing him serious discomfort. On the advice of his parents he went to the doctor, who diagnosed him with ALS – a wasting disease – an extremely rare condition for someone of his age, and totally incurable.
As a reviewer you try to be as neutral as possible during screenings, but sometimes you get caught up, and from there it’s almost impossible to imagine blankly critiquing things like form and narrative. In this sense the film must, therefore, be a success – removing this reviewer from the relative ease and safety of his objectiveness. So far as this is a piece of cinema, it has some cute directorial touches, but Vile is both wise and modest enough to keep his presence to a minimum. If there’s a message, it’s one that comes naturally from the material, not from some superficial slants, artificial crescendos of emotion or sensationalism. Becker’s story changed, it deviated from what might have been expected – and many times – but it’s clear from the film that all changes are navigable with good people behind you.
Having made a point of the film’s emotional neutrality, I haven’t tried so hard not to cry in a film since watching Bambi as a child, unsure as I was at the time whether it was allowed in the cinema or not. As with then, the effort gave me a massive headache. But it wasn’t that what I was watching made me sad. The film’s emotional impact sits in that quiet hinterland between sadness and joy – the one where you’re experiencing the sense of being. It’s neither a happy experience nor an unhappy one, but it’s more than both – an experience of fullness and potential. A man who created his opus while paralysed? A great achievement – but here’s the thing – it’s also not. It’s entirely normal when viewed in the context of Becker’s life. What this film highlights –the incredible thing – is that all of life is within anyone’s grasp if they just have the confidence to take it in hand – to commit to it. Life can’t be this simple, so we think. And truly, you don’t know what myriad complexities have been simplified, what disparate threads have been unified for the purposes of effective cinema. But what this film suggests is that there aren’t any, and if there are they’re unimportant. While it’s common practice now to view life ‘realistically’ as a series of inherently meaningless events swinging, by our selfish imposition of our worth upon them, between the twin states of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’, one can also approach it from a far simpler outlook: we’re alive right now, and that’s what really matters. Is there not incredible hope in that?
Please don’t be put off if you think this is just going to be a film about a metal guitarist. This is a universal film, an important film, meriting a wider audience than it will probably receive. In his steadfast refusal to patronise his subject, Vile has made the film his subject richly deserves.
Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet is in cinemas from Friday, and released by Dogwoof. It’s released on DVD on December 3.
In the lead-up to the recent Film Africa festival, I sat down with the co-directing/producing team of exceptional Uganda-set LGBT activism doc Call Me Kuchu to discuss how they approached such a tough subject, how they went about making their film, and their views on the Ugandan media landscape. An edited version of this interview has been published on the excellent website Grolsch Film Works, but what follows is the unabridged transcript. The interview contains a fair few references to the real-life events depicted in the film, so if you’ve yet to see it, and want to view the film cold, exercise caution. Enjoy:
PPH (in bold): What motivated you to make the film?
MZ-W (Malika Zouhali-Worrall, in regular): There are a bunch of reasons but the main one was that we heard about the case of a female-to-male transgender activist called Victor Mukasa from Uganda and a while back his home was raided by the Ugandan police. All his stuff was taken illegally and one of his colleagues was harassed. He decided he wasn’t going to stand for it and he sued the Ugandan Attorney General for police harrassment in the Ugandan court. He ended up winning that case. When we heard about that in 2009, we were intrigued to hear about this really gutsy activist community, or at least one gutsy activist who was willing to sue. That would be a big deal in the US or the UK. Also there was a judiciary system that was independent enough to be able to find a case against the government, and there was a constitution that was enforced by the courts. And then all of that in opposition to the fact that there are all these horrible anti-sodomy laws on the books, and that people are being imprisoned for their sexual orientation. There was awful discrimination going on. It made it clear that it was somewhere where the fight for LGBT rights was crucial in the sense that the stakes were really high, but it wasn’t a hopeless story. There were people who were already changing the situation and fighting back.
Ultimately we wanted to explore the issue of LGBT rights outside the global north, and we didn’t want it to be a hopeless story, which narrowed our options down a bit, tragically. We felt it was very important to tell a story which had some hope in it. We ended up researching some more and we were introduced to David and the Bishop, and we spoke to them on the phone before we went to Uganda, and then the anti-homosexuality bill was introduced and it was really obvious that we had to go as soon as possible.
PPH: It’s a tough subject matter – how did you go about raising funds to get it made?
KFW (Katherine Fairfax Wright, also in regular): Initially we just went on our own funds. We bought tickets ourselves and hard drives and I already owned the majority of the equipment. So our overhead was pretty low, but it was still significant because our savings accounts are minimal to say the least! We thought it was a worthwhile risk and we went on our first shoot like that, and came back, started editing what we had and started applying for every grant under the sun. Six months later we got our first grant from Chicken and Egg pictures which is this wonderful female filmmaker organisation in New York. This film is particularly well suited for the way the grant world works in the US because there are so many different disciplines at play: there’s African’s rights, LGBT rights, women’s rights. And we’re also female filmmakers and so these grants became open to us. It’s also highly competitive because in the US very few people are commissioning stuff, and few are giving you money up front, especially for documentaries. So we’re all in the same boat.
Is the idea that it’s easier to make films these days because of technology etc… a bit misleading?
KFW: I don’t think it’s a myth in terms of making the film, I think it’s a myth in terms of getting it financed or distributed.
As filmmakers, unlike a lot of social issue docs, you’ve elected not to impose yourselves. You’re not heard asking questions, you’re not in front of the camera etc… What motivated that decision?
MZ-W: I think ultimately in terms of the style of filmmaking we both like, we kind of just wanted the audience to know and become intimate with the characters. We knew that there was going to be a social issue at play, and we knew that we’d want the film to somehow have an advocacy role, but we personally felt that only way we would want to do that would be through empathy and through humanizing the people involved so that audiences related to them and didn’t see them as “black” or “Ugandan” or “LGBT” or “African”. “African” was something we were very wary of because we’ve seen loads of films and social documentaries about famine or conflict or what Africa’s generally understood to be about. We wanted to make a film that took people beyond these labels. It could have been possible to do that with the filmmaker being in front of the camera but we didn’t see how we could do that. We were far more interested in spending that time examining and getting to know the cameras, rather than working out how we could insert ourselves.
It’s interesting you bring up the issue of representation of such issues in the media. I’m thinking about the Kony 2012 campaign here. How do you guys feel about that – is that something you guys were actively trying to avoid?
MZ-W: Well that happened recently relative to when we started working. But yeah, definitely! [Laughs] We definitely tried to avoid what Kony 2012 did.
In terms of the characters in the film, you let them speak for themselves. Do you have empathy with what might be seen as the villains in the film?
KFW: Someone like Giles [managing editor of inflammatory tabloid Rolling Stone] I have less sympathy for because I don’t see him as being as genuine as the others. He admits to what he’s doing. People like reading articles about homosexuals so he’s publishing articles about homosexuals. Recently I read an article when he said, “It was a mistake to print all that!” [laughs], kind of back tracking, because now it’s uncool to print stuff about homosexuals, so I find him a bit more problematic. Whereas someone like the vehemently anti-gay pastors… I certainly don’t agree with their position and certainly I’m not a religious person so I can’t empathise to such a strong extent, but I do understand that it’s coming from their reading of the Bible. I think it’s a misreading of the Bible, but it’s their reading of the Bible and something they hold very close to their hearts and minds, and everything that they do. You can understand how it’s coming to pass that way. I also disagree with the way that they are carrying out that misreading of the Bible, but to some extent you can see how they’ve come to those conclusions.
MZ-W: It’s funny, because pretty much everyone who was actually campaigning on the anti-gay side, they pretty much all seemed opportunistic. They had a vested interest that wasn’t entirely about their religious beliefs. Bahati was a young, freshman MP who kinda wanted to get attention. Giles, also, was a young newspaper person who wanted to get attention. It seemed that everyone who made it a central part of their campaign, and the same for religious leaders, at least the Ugandan ones. It seemed opportunistic. If it wasn’t, they wouldn’t be trying to become famous off it.
KFW (to MZ-W): The problem with that argument, however, is that that’s exactly what they say about the activists. And that “they’re getting funding!”, “They’re on the cover of the New York Times!”
MZ-W (to KFW): But at least you can see that activists, that their interest in it is their experience, their existence. It all just seemed fake and opportunistic; Giles and Bahati shared this characteristic. There was bravado, and they wanted to be the centre of attention. They are showmen.
With Giles, were the stakes not so high in your subject matter, he’d be something of a pantomime villain. Did you have to restrain yourselves from giving him a smack?
KFW: Of course I disagree with what he’s saying, but he was also weirdly entertaining. It’s not every day you’re around someone so eerie and creepy and goofy. I think it’s easier also because I wasn’t the one talking to him, I was the one filming him. I could focus on that smile, and hope that giggle came across well in the audio waves. It was easier to distance myself because I was focusing on the filmic aspects.
MZ-W: Also, in terms of the logistics of storytelling, it’s a fact that there’s all these homophobic people who have influence in Uganda, and Gilles was a storytelling gift in terms of conveying this movement in one person. And when you’re telling a story, if you can convey a story in one person, and do it honestly, and that person can become symbolic of a bunch of people, that’s gold, because that makes your life easier. Giles was really helpful in enabling us to show a) where things come from and who’s instrumental and b) encapsulate anti-gay sentiment and the source of that, and the ludicrousness and hysteria in this one guy.
KFW: He did it also while passing the checklist of legitimate journalism for us. At first it was like, “can we really have the whole opposition movement stand on the shoulders of this one guy?” If we pick one crazy outlier who says a bunch of looney stuff – will it play well for a left-wing audience? But the reason why we thought it was moral and passed journalistic integrity was that he was the one that was printing his views for an audience of thousands, and they were interpreting it as purely factual and disseminating it amongst their family and friends. And even though he was one man, he stood for the understanding of an issue for many thousands of people.
In the last couple of years of years we’ve had an incredible series of developments within our [UK] tabloid culture, and I didn’t think anything in your film was too far away from what we’ve had in the UK. How do you feel about those parallels?
MZ-W: I think one that was a bit scary, but we always really enjoyed, and in a way that makes you reflect on these issues, was the way that Giles talks; he has a really good vocabulary in terms of ideas of journalism. He talks about things in terms of the “public good” and “public interest”. He talks about moralistic journalism, but the morals he’s playing by are awful. I feel like that was one of the most interesting things about him, because I feel that everybody thought he was going to be an ignorant idiot who hates gay people, but he’s talking about why he’s doing journalism in the same way that people at the The Guardian or The New York Times would talk about why they would do journalism. Not for the money etc…, he had these high-falutin’ dreams, but the problem was his moral structure. It makes you think about how it’s all about perspective, and it’s an extreme version of the UK.
But yes, there are people who work at tabloids who would claim that what they’re doing is for the moral good, like outing paedophiles or whatever. It does make people think about tabloid culture. One thing that was a shame was that we weren’t able to quite illustrate the breadth of media in Uganda. They really do have a diverse media, and there are one or two government papers, there are tabloids, and there are independent, socially liberal papers that are relatively supportive of the LGBT community. But there’s only so much you can squeeze into an hour and a half.
I was pleased that your film paid some attention to the fact that a lot of these attitudes were imported in the colonial era. There’s often a tendency to sit in this Western ivory tower and “other” the third world. Was it important for you to include something about that in your film?
MW: It was, yes.
KFW: That woman Sylvia [a Ugandan contributor to the film] had so many great soundbites, and really understands the issue, and there were so many of her soundbites that we really wanted to include but had to come out. I think yes on the one hand it’s important to bring up, but on the other it’s just starting to prove why that’s a non-issue. The Bible you could say is from the West, because it’s missionaries who brought it there, but then this form of activism could also be said to come from the West, as the training is all happening there. Also this recent vitriol against the gay community is from the West. So it’s this constant cycle of import and export which makes, for me, the whole argument null and void, but it’s worth addressing.
Did you have any difficulties in getting participants to agree to be in the film?
MZ-W: To varying degrees. It became obvious that the only people we could really follow intimately as our main characters had to be people who were already out or had already been outed themselves. Just because there was so many security risks of filming a lot with someone who wasn’t out. That determined who the main characters were. Beyond that, whenever we were filming a group scene we’d try to ask every single person within the shot if they were OK being filmed and if they understood the implications. Some people would say, “Yeah, it’s fine! As long as it never appears in Uganda…” And you’ve have to say, “Well there’s this thing called the internet and it really might!” It was trying to have as many conversations like that. Some would say, “You can film me but you can’t show my face”. Others would say, “You can’t film me at all”, so Katherine would try to film around them to minimize the risk of having any footage of them. We screened it in Uganda two years ago, but ore recently we screened it there again to launch their first ever gay pride, but part of the purpose of that screening was to get everyone in the film to sign-off on it because people’s situations can change so much in the space of two years. Everyone signed off again which was great because we were really nervous. I feel that that’s also maybe a sign that things as rule have got better because people signed off on it really relatively easily; they didn’t seem to have any questions or concerns. That was pretty good.
Did the passing of David Kato make you consider not carrying on?
KFW: No, it was actually the total opposite. It was like, “Wow, suddenly we’re responsible for this man’s story living on”, because we had documented the last year in his life and we had really fallen in love with the way he did his activism, and he was so active on so many levels, to an extent that we weren’t able to fully capture it all. We were in the process of filming one final long shoot with him right before he died. So we felt this incredible responsibility immediately to disseminate that story as widely as possible. But before we were ready to do that we had a pretty difficult task in front of us; completing a film that was watchable, and that people would walk away with the feeling that it had been something powerful. That’s not an easy task when you no longer have your main character to participate. I think we felt a little bit apprehensive about that but also we felt encouraged by it, and the need to carry on with it.
Did you ever experience danger on set yourselves?
MZ-W: No, not really. And I think that’s partly because Uganda’s pretty open and open to journalists and foreign journalists; there’s a pretty strong sense of freedom of the press there. We got media accreditation for whenever we needed to film with an MP. Other than that it was pretty straightforward, honestly. It was really only after David’s death that suddenly everyone – not just us, but the activists’ – sense of what the key threats and risks were had been turned on its head. We had to suddenly reassess the situation. But Uganda is a really open and liberal and pretty free society, and relatively – with everything going on in the north – peaceful country. It made our job pretty easy in terms of security.
Have you stayed in touch with the participants?
MZ-W: Naome is in London with us, doing the press stuff, and she’s going to be at all the screenings. She now has asylum in Sweden. We’re in touch with everyone else. I think now that every main character has travelled with the film somewhere. Stosh is in St. Petersburg, Russia, with the film, which is interesting, because they’ve just passed a law outlawing homosexual propaganda.
It’s become more than a film, really…
KFW: That was always our intention. Yes, to make a film that satisfies our filmmaker sensibilities and helps our careers, but certainly there was a whole other aspect which was to make a tool that was going to be useful for them in their work, documenting their work so that others could learn from it and feel supported by it and inspired by it. That whole aspect of it is what’s still underway. We’re still forming partnerships that need to be formalized in order for us to carry on that work.
Like Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, there’s an accent in your film on the importance of social media in activism. What’s your take on that?
KFW: It somehow is only really evident now in the end bit of our film. Some people have seen it as a coda – like negatively, as in “Oh, how nice of them to tack on a coda for American audiences”. It’s frustrating that it only came out in the end because Facebook and things like that are hugely important to the movement. From day one people were talking about Facebook. There’s that one scene where they’re talking about the outings in the newspaper and Long Jones is like, “Did you see it on Facebook”? And we didn’t. It’s hugely important, because for security reasons they actually can’t convene as often as they’d like and they don’t have money for transport.
MZ-W: Every morning I’ll look at Facebook and be like “Oh great, 20 notifications! I wonder what people have been saying to me”. And it’s actually them posting to different groups that they’re members of. They’re incredibly active. And really strict sometimes about what each group is for. There’s often posts like “THIS IS NOT A DATING SITE! TAKE YOUR DATING ELSEWHERE! THIS IS FOR IMPORTANT ISSUES!” [laughs]. So they are all over that.
KFW: Twitter took a bit longer because they don’t really have smartphones.
MZ-W: And Twitter’s less about groups. The thing they use most on Facebook is the group settings. Twitter is more individual.
Call Me Kuchu is screening on limited release in UK cinemas, and is being distributed by Dogwoof.
“Through these hallowed gates…”
These are the words uttered by David Siegel, ‘The Timeshare King’, gazing off into the middle distance as he pictures his dream house: a sprawling bomb-blast of nouveau riche pomp and bombast. It’s a taste abomination that could only have been conceived in the peculiar vacuum of imagination opened in the heads of the Babyboomers by the day-glo visions of that liar Disney and his tepid concept of romance, aspirational living and happy endings. It’s a particular version of an even greater mistruth: the infamous ‘American Dream’ (Happy Endings R’ Us), which stipulates that anyone can be anything they choose to be if they work hard, play hard and consume consume consume.
After a pause it’s clear that nothing else is coming. David Siegel’s head is pleasantly empty. The words hang in the air, a grandiose sentiment that Siegel is able to start but powerless to finish. He’s clearly bamboozled by this sudden reminder of words’ flightiness; he doesn’t wield the same influence over mock-poetic language as he does over people and things. There’s a hint of impotent desperation somewhere behind his eyes as he glances furtively at the camera, as though on some level he’s aware of playing a part – that of himself – and has no desire to be playing it.
Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles, a cheekily-edited documentary charting the epic fall from grace (American grace – ie. wealth) of one of America’s richest entrepreneurs, his extravagent wife Jackie (the ‘Queen’ of the title), and their large family of children, maids and pets is a good film that could have been great, but falls victim to that same need for tidy allegory that demands there be such things as happy endings. In this case the ‘happy’ ending is the moral ending – where David is shown the error of his greedy materialist ways by the advent of a crisis beyond his control. From unintentionally hilarious characters having not a care in the world, the impact of ‘The Crash’ both humbles and humanises the Siegels, bringing them to the level of ordinary people like you or I.
We watch with a certain glee as bumbling David and former beauty queen Jackie are forced to ‘adjust’ to a life within reason – a life without a private jet, without a team of housekeepers, without continuous spending on frivolous items (which Jackie, in a constant rapture of materialist desire, continues to do). Cleverly, Greenfield uses interviews with the Filipino maids, Jackie’s adopted daughter and David’s estranged son, as well as various other interconnected characters to create a rich tapestry of opinion and experience that acts as a commentary on both the positive and negative aspects of the couples’ life as they go from oblivious (with some moments so ludicrous they might have been scripted by Christopher Guest) to humbled, emotionally vulnerable and relatable. The building of their personal palace is put on hold as David struggles to hold things together, a fittingly symbolic state of affairs mirroring the struggle of ordinary Americans.
Except, of course, their lives aren’t the lives of ordinary Americans. What is shown but not explicitly commented upon is that, despite their apparent poverty (see the dog shit on the carpets, the dying pets left to starve in the absence of maids) Jackie continues to spend sums that most people could only dream of. What is not shown (Greenfield deliberately chose to cease filming at a point of financial uncertainty for the family) is that just after the events depicted David managed to turn things around. He’s now happily ripping people off with crappy timeshare apartments in much the same way as he was before. In humanising them, Greenfield defends the Siegels as much as she mocks them. They clearly don’t want or need her validation; the added irony being that David Siegel, in addition to resuming work on Versailles, is now suing for defamation of character– two rampantly egotistical moves that conveniently sum up the total lack of perspective he was supposed to have gained according to the film’s narrative.
Greenfield has said in interviews that she chose not to continue filming to leave the film as ‘a parable’, which, as a natural fan of this film, was incredibly disappointing to hear; I had felt that this was an important piece of work, something that should be shown to the Trumps, Camerons and Osbournes, Romneys, Sugars and Greenes – all the posh boys and self-made men who don’t give two shits about the people they left behind or never knew. I can’t help but feel that consciously leaving something so important out undermines the strength of the argument, rendering a great deal of meaning the film might have had void.
Having said all that, The Queen of Versailles is still very much worth a watch, especially for the unintentional comedy of the opening half hour. Greenfield has been called a sociological photographer for her work in stills – as director she acts very much like the arch sociologist, crowbarring meaning onto situations and events that don’t necessarily have inherent meaning, to portray the world in the light she’s clearly already decided she wants it to be seen. Is it enjoyable? Yes. Is it honest? Not really.
The Queen of Versailles is in cinemas now. Contributor Ed Wall can be followed on Twitter @edward1wall.
I found out about this series of events too late to slot into my May round-up, but Dogwoof, the innovative distributor behind some of my favourite films of recent times (including Dreams of a Life, Tabloid and Being Elmo), have announced an exciting series of documentary screenings at a selection of cinemas around London.
From 6-31 May, across Gate Picturehouse, Notting Hill and Stratford East Picturehouse, four films will be shown, including a director Q&A and exclusive preview ahead of the general release. For tickets & more information, click HERE:
The films, then:
Abendland - a stunning portrait of Europe at night. Sometimes darkness can help us see things more clearly (so they say, allegedly, etc…)
Putin’s KIss, which follows a politically ambitious teenager as she rises to the top of an ultra-nationalist youth organisation, and provides a rare insight into the dark side of Russian democracy “Putin-style”.
Town of Runners (pictured) + Q&As with director Jerry Rothwell. The world’s best long-distance runners hail from one small town in Ethiopia. Town of Runners follows two girls from Bekoji, determined to follow in their heroes’ footsteps.
Revenge of the Electric Car, in which director Chris Paine goes behind the closed doors of Nissan, GM, and the Silicon Valley start-up Tesla Motors to chronicle the story of the global resurgence of electric cars.
Here’s a trailer for Abendland to further whet your appetite:
Bill Cunningham New York is an amazing documentary about the eponymous 82-year-old photographer who scoots around the Big Apple (do we still call it that?) on a bicycle and snaps shots of the local scenesters for the New York Times’ style pages, where he has worked for for years and years and years. I loved it. Here are some reasons why:
Go and see this film. It’s in cinemas now, via the ever impressive Dogwoof. Here’s the trailer:
Contributor Michael Mand takes a wistful look at Jeanie Finlay’s music shop doc Sound It Out.
During my recent review of Michael Dowse’s hockey comedy Goon, I reflected on my youth in North East England and suggested that the local ice rink provided the city’s youth-cultural centrepiece. I was of course referring to those healthy beings who value such vulgar activities as ‘fun’ & the company of others; for the rest of us, there was Volume Records.
For the benefit of younger readers: in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, music was largely available in three formats – vinyl, cassette and the new technology of compact disc – but could be bought from a range of outlets. There were the obvious chain stores (Durham had not one, but two branches of Our Price), non-specialist shops such as Woolworth’s and, in my case, the local newsagent (which sold ex-jukebox singles at 50p a pop); meanwhile, for those who dared enter, there were independent record shops.
Volume was one of these shops; a small, dark and musty space, secreted down a narrow street and staffed by the largest array of cultural snobs north of the Royal Opera House. To enter was to brave the judgement of older, cooler men and confront a bewildering array of records, posters and flyers, a cacophony of unfamiliar noise and the stench of both ageing cardboard and bizarrely attired individuals. Friends of mine who worked there attest to the absurdly competitive and superior owner – think Comic Book Guy with a Wearside accent.*
“Barry, Dick and I have decided you can’t be a serious person if you own less than 500 records…”
Anyone who has read Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity or watched Stephen Frears’ excellent film adaptation will be familiar with the type personified by Rob, who represents all of us downtrodden by the male compunction to own, to collect, to hoard. There’s an anthropological study to be made of this phenomenon but, for now, Hornby must do, such is his bull’s-eye depiction of these once-hipsters trapped by their obsessions (Rob), geeky music-librarians struggling to socialise outside of their artificial, vinyl environment (Dick) and aggressive record-snobs who can only assess themselves (or others) via a personally approved musical pantheon (Barry).
This is a world in which everything and anything can be safely compartmentalised in All-Time Top Five lists, in-jokes and an obsession with obscure fact and arbitrary opinion. Jack Black’s seemingly OTT performance will seem natural to anyone who has encountered that type in a shadowy record shop or stained-carpet ROCK pub. The stereotype calcified in Hornby’s book – and its predecessor, the football crazy’s crazy football bible, Fever Pitch – along with the likes of Loaded magazine, reduced us chaps to the status of one-track minded monoliths in the 1990s. Despite this, I believe that there is an emotional richness to the male collector; a wish to surround himself with something meaningful, beautiful and to possess something he might one day leave behind.
“They’re as close to being mad as makes no difference…”
All of which makes it all the stranger that the melancholy yet uplifting documentary Sound It Out (recently released on DVD) should be so sympathetically directed by a lady, specifically Jeanie Finlay. Her film heads twenty miles south of Durham City, to run-down Stockton-upon-Tees, and focuses upon the only remaining independent record store in the town, the eponymous Sound It Out. The shop is run by a real-life ‘Rob’, Tom Butchart, who’s making vinyl’s last stand in an obscure part of the north. This is not a trendy London outlet, not a Rough Trade, or any Portobello Road boutique; the shop is a refuge and supplier to a range of troubled local souls, who look to Tom as a kind of guru.
Finlay is an unobtrusive presence, documenting the irregular comings and goings of the local refugees. There’s a formerly suicidal fan of anything subtitled ‘metal’ who credits the music he finds in Rob’s shop as his salvation; a pair of local hip hop wannabes, hoping that music might lift them out of the dead end of recession-hit Britain; a now successful London-based female singer-songwriter, back to her hometown for a shop-based show. There’s even room for the random characters from the pub opposite the shop, who occasionally appear to slur questions about songs they have cocked an ear at on the boozer juke. Each one is treated with complete, interested and non-patronising respect, and sometimes followed home by Finlay to their (usually) celibate flats, in order to further discuss this music thing.
Shane is my favourite; a balding, middle-aged, denim-jacketed yet eloquent oddball who encapsulates the power of the music that we addicts rely on like seatbelts. Shane has seen Status Quo live between 450 and 500 times, yet claims he is “not fanatical” (“there’s nothing like doing 6 solid nights of Quo, one after the other”); he lives alone and has never washed his patch-ridden Quo jacket. Growing up with a physical disability, Shane discovered what those of us with a social disability also identified at some point in our teens: music enables a form of internal, yet real conversation that can’t possibly be matched in the local park or ice rink. Finlay deftly reveals that, in his record collection, Shane has found the comfort he might otherwise have sought in the enriching career or relationship he’s been wrongly denied. As with the depressed metal fan, these are Morrissey’s literal “songs that saved your life”.
“I agreed that what really matters is what you like, not what you are like… Books, records, films – these things matter…”
The near-anachronistic milieu evinced by Sound It Out got me thinking about how we consume music today. In my youth, the modern capacity to access music would have seemed a crazy sci-fi dream. Reduced to scouting for music in Volume-type stores or record fairs (my original vinyl copy of The Smiths’ Meat Is Murder cost me £4.50 from a church charity sale in Crewe), or to taping the Top Forty from a crackling Radio One, the idea that virtually every record ever made could be available at one’s fingertips would have appeared magical. However, even as I take advantage of technology in consuming music, I can’t help but feel that this ease of access in some ways devalues the music itself. MP3 players have traduced the role of the album – a cohesive whole which rewarded time spent with it – in favour of single tracks, shuffles and the downloading/deleting of unloved digital files. Gone also is the artwork, the craving for liner notes – for information. I own a much loved picture book which details in glorious colour every sleeve of every record released on the Factory label; such tactile pleasures don’t exist with the iPod.
Of course, the ability to download music, or find thousands of tracks on Spotify or YouTube, has wonderful benefits, opening up a whole world of sound from across the decades. However, this sea change in the way we consume music is sounding a death knell for the record collector’s Mecca: shops like Sound it Out.
“Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music…?”
Tom seems more balanced and far happier than High Fidelity’s Rob, but is still a fanatic at heart . It’s easy to sense the desolation that will be felt if and when his one man crawl against the tide comes to an end; at one point, Tom explains that for him, records are “all about emotions & memories”. In many ways, Sound It Out also holds just these things for so many of his dwindling disciples.
As a piece of documentary film, Sound It Out has much in common with the music it celebrates. It is engrossing and heart warming, but it is also deeply sad and reveals many truths about the present in which we live which far transcend the obscure world of the independent record shop it enthusiastically profiles. Tom’s assistant, previously made redundant by a mainstream record outlet, expresses his fear that he may soon be out of a job again, and suddenly a film about a subset of people takes on a wider resonance, reflecting the changing times and providing an account of the decay of towns like Stockton, as businesses collapse and shops stand empty or are changed into bargain outlets.
On a recent return visit to Durham, I passed the narrow side street where Volume Records used to be. There, in its place, now hides a discount electrical goods store. In the ancient market place, even the likes of Our Price and Woolworths are now a Haagen Dazs ice cream outlet and a Tesco supermarket, standing incongruously amid the cobblestones. Around the statue teenagers, as ever, gather in groups, MP3 players in their pockets, headphones covering their ears.
Sound It Out is out now on DVD, released by Dogwoof. Extras include: filmmaker and cast interviews, Jeanie Finlay’s first short documentary film Love Takes and another music themed short docu by Tim Mattia - The Chapman Family is not a Cult. Also included are additional music videos and trailers.
*Though, to be fair, Volume’s Führer would be kind enough to gift certain of us outdated window displays, leading to the decoration of our sixth form common room with an entire wall of Teenage Fanclub album covers, a life size cardboard cut-out of the members of James and large posters hyping records by Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Therapy? and Cypress Hill.
Hurrah! My favourite film from last year, Carol Morley’s haunting Dreams Of A Life is released on DVD today via Dogwoof. Here’s what I had to say about it in my Top Ten Films of 2011 (where it placed at the summit):
“Carol Morley’s haunting, unclassifiable (OK well, it’s kind of a Rashomonumentstruction if I must) and frankly rather weird film is that rare beast: a true original. Ostensibly an attempt by the director to discover more about Londoner Joyce Vincent (who died in her Wood Green flat in 2003 at 38, and was found an incredible three years later), what emerges is a chilling, poetic and determinedly personal parable about how we as humans (fail to) connect with each other in our supposedly hyper-connected world. Featuring amazing use of music and a radiant performance from Zawe Ashton as a near-ghostly iteration of Vincent, it’s disturbing, ultra-contemporary stuff, which I suspect will be studied in film schools for years to come. It also boasts the most powerful final shot I can remember for ages”
I also interviewed Morley last year. Here’s a brief excerpt:
PPH: Thematically it has a lot in common with your earlier film The Alcohol Years, in which you yourself were the subject. Other than the hard work and time you put into it, how much of your inner life did you put into this project?
Carol Morley: Weirdly, and I’m not sure if they meant it as a compliment, someone emailed me and said “How long did it take you to find another film to make about an absent person?” and I thought, “Oh my God! That’s not what I set out to do!” But I must be attracted to this idea of absence and I think with Joyce, I never could have made the film if it was about a man that had died in front of that TV. There was some connection in this film being about what it is to be a woman in today’s world. When someone says in the film “it’s bad enough being 40, yet being 40 and alone”, it’s those anxieties that women have I found interesting. With Joyce – and without me wanting to sound like a nutter – it felt like I was chosen to do the film. When I met the family, I found that they never called her Joyce, they called her Carol. We were the same age. I wanted to be a singer, like Joyce. Her mum died when she was 11 and my dad died when I was 11. I really understood the idea of how losing a parent early on in life can destabilise you. I didn’t want to impose my life on Joyce but I didn’t want to just make a film like “look at that person over there!” I wanted to make the connection to a real, breathing person.
You can read the full interview here.
The DVD is packed with special features, including Morley’s short film I’m Not Here, an interview between Morley and Marley director Kevin Macdonald, a featurette entitled Recurring Dreams, and a bunch of trailers and video diaries. Go get it.