Tag Archives: Dogwoof

Bill Cunningham New York – a hymn to passionate, singular creativity

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:

  • Bill is the perfect subject. He’s warm, funny, forthcoming about his art, and far from camera shy. Crucially, however, he’s also enigmatic and unknowable; even those closest to him don’t really know the full picture. This appealingly pervasive sense of mystery drives the film forwards.
  • Unlike the harrowingly one-dimensional A Man’s Story (a serious hack-job about menswear designer Ozwald Boateng, reviewed here), BCNY director Richard Press mixes up his interviews to create a satisfying, rounded portrait of the man. Cunningham is interviewed on his own, at work and among friends, while others (including such big hitters as Vogue editor Anna Wintour) are interviewed about him.
  • The film features one outrageously attired lady named Edith Sherman who lives down the hall from Bill in their Carnegie Studio residency (which is under threat from developers) who, at 96 years of age, is 14 years older than the man himself! I liked her.
  • In a creative culture increasingly defined by speed and instant gratification, Bill is a true, committed, long-haul artist. He’s a genuine observer of trends, and not just fashion, but New York life as a whole. He’s pernickety, a perfectionist, and is possessed of a strong ethos and egalitarian streak which shines through and makes you root for him even more.
  • The film’s form matches its content perfectly. Press’ deployment of jazzy music, rich colour and lively editing is fully in keeping with the sprightly nature and constant movement of his inspirational subject.
  • In some of the archive footage (mostly from the 1980s, used sparingly), Bill looks a little like David Byrne, another legendarily creative New Yorker. This, in turn, made me think of my favourite Talking Heads’ song ‘Found A Job’, which is all about a frustrated couple who jack in their respective jobs and decide to make a TV show, which becomes a roaring success and helps to revive their relationship. In a circuitous way, this took me back to Bill, whose passion for work is palpable; for him, it’s not a chore, it’s his life. That’s uplifting.
  • It’s aptly titled; encapsulating his world, a breathless rush where subject and location are inseparable, indivisible. Punctuation would just get in the way. It’s Bill’s city.
  • Bill just comes across like a lovely, lovely guy and you want to spend even more time in his company than the film’s slim 84 minutes.
  • It’s not just enjoyable; it transcends documentary filmmaking to become a hymn to passionate, singular creativity.

Go and see this film. It’s in cinemas now, via the ever impressive Dogwoof. Here’s the trailer:

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Sound It Out: A Eulogy for the Record Store

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.*

Shane: “There’s nothing like doing 6 solid nights of Quo, one after the other”

“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 compulsion 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 ostensibly OTT performance will seem entirely 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”.

Pop to Sound It Out and that Jesus Jones badge could be yours

“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.

Dreams Of A Life released on DVD

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.

Interview with Dreams Of A Life director Carol Morley

Dreams Of A Life is a compelling new feature documentary/drama which examines the tragic tale of Joyce Vincent, a lady of 38 who died alone in her North London flat in 2003 and lay there for three years before being discovered. I met up with director Carol Morley recently to discuss the process of piecing together Joyce’s life, what attracted her to the story, and her own filmic influences.

When did the title of the film come to you?

The title came immediately. I didn’t know anything about Joyce, and what was in the newspapers was so anonymous [Morley first heard about Joyce when she picked up a copy of The Sun on the underground] that I knew anything I did would reflect a dream of somebody else’s life. As the film and research progressed, dreams also stood for her aspirations and her hope for a life. We have ‘The Things That Dreams Are Made Of’ by Human League on the soundtrack, a tunnel with the word dreams scrawled on it, there’s other songs that mention dreams. I think somehow there’s a dreamlike quality to a life that’s gone, and it felt like what I was trying to summon up.

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?

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.

In the flashbacks I found it hugely effective that often Joyce is isolated in the frame. But Joyce is described as petite and Zawe Ashton [who plays Joyce] is 6’ tall! Was this a stylistic choice or a necessity?

When you see her dancing in the club with the guys she looks tall, doesn’t she! I chose someone to play Joyce because I just liked this idea of a character drawing you through the film. I wanted her to appear like a ghost, a bit out of time, and when she’s in the nightclub with people, it’s just the three guys. And when she’s at the party she’s sitting there at the table and you don’t see the others. I liked this idea of an absence of people around her because, of course, that did happen in the end. We focused on the people around her for the testimonies and interviews, but when it was her, it really was about her so that was important. It wasn’t the height. The reason I went for Zawe is that when she walked in the room, she lit it up. She had that charisma and that was what was more important than getting everything right.

Zawe Ashton as Joyce Vincent

Had you seen Zawe in anything else before?

No, but the casting agent said her name and I looked up St. Trinians and I said “Ooh, I dunno!”, so it wasn’t from what she’d been in, it was how she was at the audition. She did two auditions, she got recalled because I wanted to be absolutely sure. We did workshop things together. We’d play music and she’d look at photographs, but she never saw any of the interviews. I never wanted her to come to the role through the people, I wanted to come to the role from the inside, not from something external. The only time she saw the interviews was on the TV; I did put those on the TV for real, it’s not added on over the top. When they popped up in the bedsit, that’s when we filmed them.

Joyce died before the full social media age flourished. Did you get a sense from the interviewees that she might have been saved if her situation had happened 5 years on?

It’s not in the film, but there were two colleagues who said that they thought Joyce would have been on Facebook because she was so sociable. It’s weird, though, because people have 300-plus Facebook friends and you wonder if you’d notice if one of your friends dropped off the list. If you have a closer friend, you don’t normally just do Facebook, you’d use the phone, contact them properly. I don’t think it necessarily would have [saved her]. Although the people from work said that Joyce told them she was going to New York and would’ve expected to see that on their Facebook page, the thing is that if someone goes abroad you get the feeling they’re just too busy. Actually, I think it [Joyce’s situation] is more likely to happen now. In the days when you had milk delivered and there was 18 milk bottles built up outside the flat, people would notice. I think it’s more likely to happen because the communication is less physical.

And how did you get your head around the 3 years undiscovered thing? 

It is incredible. It’s a long time. The film took five years to make, and when I was at the three year point – which was a long time, a lot of things had happened – I thought “God, that is such a long time in people’s lives for that to pass”. For me it feels like a sign that the film needed to be made. It’s so extreme. When the story unfolds and Joyce is the opposite to how you’d expect it’s important because you realise, “Oh my God, if someone like her can go unnoticed, then what else are we missing?” It makes you take a look around you.

The situation has an almost horror film-esque quality…

It does, because you know that she decomposed, became skeletal. I did a lot of research at the British Library to find out what would have happened to her body which is horrible, but it’s more an internal horror. I didn’t want to show it as such, only the things happening at the flat [with the police and cleaners who arrive]. But after 3 months there wouldn’t have been a smell anymore; it wouldn’t have gone on forever. It doesn’t get worse and worse. It just goes away.

Notably, the film is very restrained. It doesn’t take the route of reflecting the style of the tabloids that the story appeared in in the first place. How did you approach it to make sure you were being tasteful?

I spoke to a coroner and did research. I knew there wouldn’t be loads of flies. I wanted to be accurate. There wouldn’t have been what you see in CSI. I knew I didn’t want to focus on that side of it. It’s why I found the story interesting; concentrating not on how she died but on how she lived. While you do need to present the story, you need to do it in a way that’s not exploitative or just tawdry.

One of the most interesting things about the film is the almost Rashomon-esque way that the men in her life give directly contradictory views on Joyce. She remains elusive. Would you describe it as a feminist film and did you develop a distaste for any of the men?

I didn’t at all. What I felt was fantastic about them was that they were prepared to actually talk and I know that John who’s in the film [and talks about sex a lot] said afterwards “I’m a complete pillock!” Rather than being conscious of how they spoke, they brought themselves and their attitudes to it, and I respected that because it would have been easy to have not done so. They are very honest, and I was thankful because they gave an indication into the male psyche and also an insight into how Joyce was around men and how they perceived her. It’s a film about Joyce but also not a film about Joyce. It’s about how Joyce was constructed by a lot of people. She did seem to have more male associates than female, so it’s going to tell that story. I think it is a feminist film in that it’s engaging with ideas of what it means to be a contemporary woman. But I wanted to explore, so once you start to say “THIS FILM WILL DO THIS”, you shut everything down. I was very open with the people. I didn’t want them to hold back, otherwise that does a discourtesy to Joyce, and to themselves in a way.

Do you see a movement developing around the film along the lines of “Talk to your neighbour”?

I think that’s happening because there’s a lady on Twitter who came to a preview in London and has since held a street party; she said she’d been isolated from her neighbours and her community. For me, I never wanted to make a sentimental film about Joyce, I never wanted to make a film that revelled in tragedy so I think that people aren’t leaving the film and feeling terribly impotent, it’s like people are leaving and wanting to do something, whether phoning people up or just reflecting on life. I think if Joyce’s legacy is to create a more humane world, then that’s a great thing for all concerned. But hopefully people will find different things that they love about it, maybe the music! There’s an energy to it rather than a negative, sapping feel. Joyce just wasn’t that kind of person.

The real Joyce Vincent

What about the recurring TV motif?

It was the TV being on [for the 3 years that Joyce lay dead] that made me want to make it more than anything. It just seemed to invoke the modern age. We’re so tied up with images. And Joyce was tied up with that too, because everyone was going on about how she looked. We have the interviews playing on a TV in her bedsit and that was quite an early decision; to have the bedsit as a departure point, and to have interviews on it. The TV is such an important character in it, and this idea of what played over her body for three years is astounding. When people are lonely they watch television. When you go to the cinema there’s people around you. I thought it was quite profound that there was people, quite literally, talking over her.

Music is everywhere in the film, can you tell me a bit more about the music in the film and the decisions you made around it?

The soundtrack – but not the Barry Adamson score – came first. Once I started to get to know Joyce a bit I began to put together some of the music she liked. I knew she liked soul, and I knew she liked Kate Bush which we couldn’t clear the rights to, which may have been fortunate! And then I started to look at songs from the time she was born, and everything became connected to her. She had sung ‘Midnight Train To Georgia’ when she was 16 and really liked that song, that’s the one I’ve got her singing as a kid [in the film]. There was one song that didn’t make it in: ‘Missing That Girl’ by Tony Orlando and Dawn, and the backing singer is called Joyce Vincent. The music came first and the connection was very strong. Because she had wanted to be a singer it was important that the film was led by the music; it’s a very musical film.

There’s a very evocative feel for the music and the studios of the 80s and 90s…

The location person found the recording studio used in the film, and it was actually behind the flat where she died in Wood Green. But all the staff were from the 80s, like they’d never left. They had the computer stuff but they still had the same mixing desk and they had all the microphones, it was brilliant! I guess people don’t change as much as they do now but it was all original gear.

Which documentaries and documentarians have influenced your work?

I studied Fine Art and Film at St. Martins so I like experimental film, and when I first discovered what documentary could do it was through Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line and the Maysles Brothers’ Grey Gardens. One’s very constructive, one’s observational; cinema verite. Also, one of my heroes is Agnes Varda. With this film I was interested in Vagabond, which was a fiction film from the early 80‘s. It starts with a woman’s death, and goes through interviews with people on the street and they’re talking about her, and it’s almost a bit like An Inspector Calls; you wonder if they are all describing the same woman! And you see the last few days of this woman’s life. It’s a brilliant film. Also Cleo From 5 to 7, that woman is a singer so those that were on my mind. I also included an homage to Maya Deren’s Meshes Of The Afternoon, when the little girl looks at the window; I love that idea that if you’re a film buff, you can spot little references in there.

What’s next for you?

I’d like to adapt a book, but I can’t say any more than that for now because of rights. Also, I did a short film a few years ago about mass hysteria and I found an article from a 1970s medical magazine and it was the case histories and confessions of two girls and it was a case of mass hysteria that had happened in a North London comprehensive school for girls and the insight into it and the background is fascinating. I don’t know what form it’ll take, maybe a feature, but I have been trying to find the girls, or women as they’ll be now. Even if I didn’t I might still make it. There’s lots of interesting themes in it, and I’ve already started to think about the music too, what music they might have been listening to. That comes from Joyce, it’s a good way into a film.

A version of this interview first appeared on Little White Lies online.

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The First Movie

Mark Cousins, the man behind the exceptional recent The Story of Film series, channels his passion for film into this charming, unusual documentary that boldly gives voice to the perspectives of Kurdish children in Goptapa, Iraq.

In 1988, Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime gassed this ethnic minority village during the genocidal campaign known as the Anfal, killing 14% of its population. Because Cousins grew up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, he strongly relates to how a child experiences the traumas of war. When he was young, he says he was ‘tenderised’ by the surrounding strife, but was able to take refuge in his homeland’s beauty and in the imagined worlds of films. The children of Goptapa are also haunted by conflict yet surrounded by a beautiful land – but they have no access to films or the escape they provide. Cousins believes that his personal experience shows how the daily threats of war could be kept at bay by nourishing his imagination; this spurs his quest is to see if film can work the same magic for Goptapa’s children as it did for him.

Cousins’ experiment of granting these children access to film as both consumers and producers envelops the audience in a dreamworld. He introduces Goptapa to imagination-sparking films, then distributes Flip cameras to the children and screens their footage as a parting gift. A carnival-like atmosphere pervades the screenings, reminding us how movies can be mystical and bewitching. The kids’ films are unreal, rare insights into their values and experiences. Their footage is appreciably more raw, more honest than what we’d see from Western journalists. The older kids capture heart-breaking interviews of the adults of Goptapa, in which the interviewees speak quickly about their personal tragedies, as if it would hurt less that way. The younger kids focus more on fun, filming their friends and spinning stories, reminding us that they’re not so different from other kids.

However, even in the young ones’ films, we see a quiet despair. In young Mohammed’s film, a boy plays with mud because he has nothing else to play with; he ‘gives his wishes to the mud’. When asked who he loves, Mohammed says ‘those who protect this village’ – not his family or friends. Through the medium of film, we empathise with this wounded community, crippled by fear of persecution. By the end, Cousins modifies his assertion that film can make war feel less real – these children see film not as an escape but as a tool to help them fight toward better lives.

Cousins’ unique vision is a refreshingly thoughtful take on life in a war-scarred village; he skillfully juxtaposes Goptapa’s beautiful panoramas with its tragic history, deliberately steering well clear of the look and tone of an NGO advert. His esoteric visual style combines pastoral views with whimsical shots of wind, balloons and bubbles so that even in an ancient land fraught with conflict, we think of what it’s like to be a child and innocently imagine a world where anything’s possible. As such, The First Movie is a striking, original documentary, best watched when you crave an escape.

The First Movie is available on DVD now, released by Dogwoof.

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“It’s a warzone here” – a look at The Interrupters, and interview with Ameena Matthews

The Interrupters: (l-r) Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams, Eddie Bocanegra

“It’s a warzone here,” is a phrase you keep hearing again and again in The Interrupters, a powerful and somewhat distressing documentary about the senseless violence in America’s inner cities and about CeaseFire, an organisation attempting to cure this sickness, one individual at a time.

The film was produced by Steve James, director of 1994 college basketball video-diary Hoop Dreams, in collaboration with author Alex Kotlowitz, whose New York Times article put James on the scent of CeaseFire and its brave ‘violence interrupters’ operating on the front lines.

There were 453 murders in the city of Chicago in 2009. The city is drawn along imaginary colour lines, and on the South Side, where The Interrupters was filmed, it’s not uncommon for 12 and 13 year olds to walk around with bullet-proof vests under their clothes. Many students here are afraid to go to school where playground confrontations often threaten to degenerate into deadly battles.

It was in one such after-school fight that Derrion Albert, a student at Fenger Academy High School, lost his life. Clumped around the head with a piece of railroad track when he was caught in the middle of a fight between rival gangs, the honours student died on the spot.

The incident was caught on a mobile phone, and the video of Derrion’s death spread like wildfire across the national TV networks in 2009, prompting a bout of national soul searching. President Barack Obama sent Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan to Chicago to attempt to formulate some response.

The troubled Caprysha Anderson

But on the ground in Chicago, it’s CeaseFire that mobilises its troops and dispatches Ameena Matthews to console Derrion Albert’s mother. Over the course of a year, The Interrupters follows Ameena and two other interrupters, Eddie Bocanegra and Cobe Williams, as they operate in the trenches of Englewood, Chicago.

When situations in the community threaten to blow over into violence, for instance immediately after a murder when there is a high risk of retaliation, the violence interrupters will step in and defuse the situation, encouraging the aggrieved parties to resolve the issue through dialogue, not violence. The philosophy behind CeaseFire is that patterns of violence can be disrupted by approaching them as you would an epidemic – going after the most infected, and stopping the infection at its source.

So you find the violence interrupters, often with little regard for their own safety, intervening in gang disagreements, hectoring the teenage mourners at the funeral of another dead friend, helping offenders reintegrate once they’re released from jail or just performing acts of kindness for the most fragile teens, like Caprysha Anderson who is in and out of Juvenile Detention.

The success of the CeaseFire programme, which registers a 50% drop in murders in some areas, can be attributed to the fact that its violence interrupters all come from the community, and often have first-hand experience of the activities they’re trying to put a halt to.  Ameena, who breezes through tight situations like some Mother Theresa of the South Side, is in fact the daughter of Jeff Fort, one of the city’s most infamous gang leaders and was once herself caught up in the same tricking she now helps to put a stop to.

Critics of the CeaseFire organisation argue that it’s just a Band Aid, treating the symptom without treating with the cause  – those intractable problems like unemployment, poor education, and drug trafficking – but its defendants argue that by stopping the violence you open the pathway for a neighbourhood to heal, for the schools to get better, for the kids to improve their outlooks and for businesses to want to open in the community.

In his book Dreams for My Father, Obama remembered his own time as a community organiser on the South Side of Chicago, in the Altgeld Gardens public housing project where he helped provide summer jobs, instigated building repairs and removed asbestos from apartments. “Change won’t come from the top,” he notes. “Change will come from a mobilized grass roots.”

The Interrupters shows that change is taking effect unquestionably in small but steady steps.

*    *    *    *    *

Interrupter Ameena Matthews

We spoke to Ameena Matthews, one of the stars of the film, over the phone from Chicago.

Watching you in action, the way you intervene in situations, the way you provide support to really fragile subjects, is awe-inspiring.

I’m very honoured to have that gift. Some people wish they could sing, some people wish they could dance, I just want to be able to be effective and help people change their lives. That’s my goal, that’s my purpose.

Can you tell us the latest on Caprysha who is going through a very difficult time in the film?

Caprysha is a hot mess still. She’s locked up still and she’s in the process of waiting to get paroled and look for housing, because she’ll be 21 soon and it’s no more Juvenile Detention Center for her – she’ll go into Illinois Department of Corrections women facility. But she’s doing good. I spoke to her last week and before the weather gets bad I’ll ride up there to where she is.

How do know where to draw the line with how far you get involved with these young people’s lives?

In dealing with people’s lives, and being responsible for their lives, it’s not like the shut-off 9-5 type of thing. So really they allow me to know what my boundaries are. Like with Caprysha, she wasn’t ready to make a decision to change her life. She had another run in her. She wanted to do it her way and see if it would work. So she let me know that.  There’s no  handbook on how to be a productive member of society. It’s just doing the right things for the right reasons, and if you’re still not doing that after our engagement, that’s cut off for me. I’m not going to harbour a fugitive. I’m not going to aid and abet illegal behaviour. So they let me know what they need – whether it’s just a kind word, or to get something to eat. Just taking baby steps. And then they might go ‘Now I’m ready to get my GED,’ or ‘Now I’m ready to visit my mom’ or ‘I’m ready to go make amends to people that I harmed in the midst of the drama that I caused’.

How do you deal with all the pain?

It’s hard to deal with all the pain, but I come from that background so I can i.d. with it. We, as a people, can write our own ending to the book. It’s going to take a miracle and blessings upon our people to get them to understand to change their mindset that violence is not a good thing. So you take it one day at a time, one youth at a time, or sometimes in my case I have five or six I’m juggling at one time.  If I can get somebody to put their guns down, and don’t shoot anybody, we can deal with the underlying issues, we really can. But if you shoot somebody and catch a murder, I can’t really help you.

Is the government doing enough?

I’m not a political person. I’ve just got to do my part and hopefully the government will do the right thing to get people education, food, housing. I don’t like to do the political type conversation about what the government is and is not doing. As a whole country, we can always do more. But people know from their hearts what the right thing is. To have kids not able to go to school, and not have proper health care, guns being dropped in our communities… people know the difference between right and wrong, whether that’s the government, the school board, or my neighbour.

With CeaseFire, is it the case that it’s the community that’s best equipped to solve its own problems?

We as a black people have been so abused all the way back from slavery and there are issues we haven’t dealt with, unresolved emotions, and it’s always a consistent burden put on our community.  And yes, we do have to fix our own problems, however some of our problems are not problems that we created.

Contributor Jez Smadja is the editor of arts and culture webzine Shook, which can be followed on Twitter @SHOOKmag. The Interrupters is out now on DVD and iTunes via Dogwoof.

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Page One: Inside The New York Times

It’s hardly news that it’s a scary time for print newspapers. Digital media threatens their existence in a myriad of ways, most importantly undermining their business model and circumventing their editorial authority. When an article is posted online, you don’t often pay for access. The old business model of print newspapers that relied on 80% ad revenue and 20% subscription fees has collapsed, and newspapers are closing all over the world. Furthermore, you’re likely to see breaking news trending on Twitter before any newspaper publishes it, online or otherwise; an eagle-eyed passerby with a smartphone can easily trump coverage by the major players. Suddenly it seems we can all be journalists, and newspapers are left fighting to stay relevant to their readers.

But if any newspaper were to survive, it would be The New York Times, wouldn’t it? In 2008, the Times created a Media Desk that is perceptively, yet ironically tasked with covering the downfall of traditional media and developments in new media. Andrew Rossi’s documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times investigates the fate of print media by crafting an intimate portrait of the Times Media Desk and its struggles to maintain traditional journalism values in this shifting media landscape.

The film’s anchor is David Carr, a veteran Media columnist and colourful elder statesman who passionately defends the Times and its values, regularly appearing on panels and at conferences. His presence is refreshing and effective – he certainly doesn’t look or act like a member of an elitist, stodgy institution. Carr’s candid commentary and gravelly, authoritative voice imbue the film with hope for print journalism’s future.

To represent the next generation, there is Brian Stelter, a rare example of a blogger-turned-print-journalist. The contrast is striking – Stelter works with a desktop AND a laptop in front of him, drafting articles and tweeting constantly while consulting sources through the phone glued to his ear. With a straight face, Carr says: “I still can’t get over the feeling that Brian Stelter was a robot assembled in the basement of the New York Times to come and destroy me.”

Page One’s fly-on-the-wall coverage mixed with a smart selection of interviews and archival footage paints a broad yet detailed portrait of the Times and the challenges it faces. We see Carr grilling Shane Smith, the CEO of Vice, who supports a different, gonzo-esque form of journalism altogether. We see Stelter talking to Wikileaks founder (and Gordon Ramsay impersonator) Julian Assange about how he believes that journalism’s values are more muddled than activism’s. The film exposes the expertise of the Times’ process of curating the news, from fact-checking to thoughtful collaborations and editorial meetings, and it becomes clear that the New York Times’ position as a prime mover is threatened by new kids on the block with chips on their shoulders.

The Media Desk editor Bruce Headlam and notable staff from other departments are consulted throughout the film, and we are even granted access to the thoughts of Times executive editor Bill Keller – proof that Rossi was really trusted.  The film’s sources go beyond the Times staff to include TV news footage of key media business moments intercut with commentary from a well-chosen range of academics and major players in print journalism. Though there is a ton of information presented, the content is tightly edited and aided by effectively subtle scoring and logical transitions. The result is an entertaining, information-packed 90 minutes that capture the integrity and tenacity of the Times at this grim time for the print industry.

DVD Extras: UK trailer, featurettes (including a segment on ‘American Newspapers in Transition’), deleted scenes and further interviews (including a discussion with legendary Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein).

Page One: Inside The New York Times is available now on DVD (and iTunes), and is released by Dogwoof.