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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.


Four Days Inside Guantanamo

Four Days Inside Guantanamo
is a harrowing documentary by Luc Cote and Patricio Hernandez which combines grainy interrogation video footage (recently declassified and released by the Canadian courts) with interviews from experts and involved parties to tell the sad story of Omar Khadr, a 15-year old Canadian citizen captured and detained on suspicion of killing an American soldier in Afghanistan – the first child soldier ever to be charged with war crimes. 

Despite being fundamentally illegal (no formal charge or right to habeas corpus), the interrogation in Guantanamo in 2003 was carried out by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service in participation with the US and was designed to entice Khadr to confess to a crime he may not have committed (Khabr was eventually sentenced to eight further years imprisonment in 2010). Cote and Hernandez structure the material into four daily chapters entitled Hope, Fallout, Blackmail, Failure, which accurately sum up the arc of his experience, and within capture the insidious psychological torture visited upon the young man following his prior ordeals in the harsh light of the suspicion and unconstitutional activity that flowered in the wake of 9/11. As Gar Pardy, former Director General of Canadian Consular Affairs observes, this process was simply an extension of the physical torture he’d already been subjected to.

Above and beyond the politics of the situation resonates the human tragedy at the heart of the story. Khadr was a child who had experienced a peripatetic upbringing, and found himself in a hugely difficult situation, firstly in Afghanistan (where he been taken by his alleged extremist father, who is not blameless in this), then in the US detention facility at Bagram Air Base, and finally in the interrogation cell. The overwhelming sense of injustice is compounded by the brave, dogged manner with whch Khadr conducts himself, while the dispassionate gaze of the surveillance cameras makes proceedings all the more disturbing. The interviewees collected by Cote and Hernandez provide important context and information to underline that these events are a serious abuse of human rights, while particular displeasure is aimed at the Canadian government (in particular Prime Minister Stephen Harper) who did not adequately step up to protect its own citizen.

Although focusing primarily on Khadr, the filmmakers also highlight a Willy Loman-esque desperation in the interrogators to get the answers they want, simply to prove that they are doing their job; a point that further underlines the banality of such monstrous activity. At the end of each day, they simply get up and leave Khadr in a state of despair to to go back to their families. While lives are being destroyed and civil liberties upended, it’s just a job for them.

Four Days Inside Guantanamo is an important, incendiary documentary that will leave you furious at the inhumane treatment meted out to such a young person, and serves as a timely, chilling reminder of the arrogance and discrimination that prevailed under the Bush administration in the ‘War on Terror’. The haunting image of an emotionally crushed Khadr, isolated in the iconic orange jumpsuit rendered blurry and abstract by the surveillance videotape, will stay with you for a long time; a child abandoned by his country in a climate of fear. Essential viewing.

Four Days Inside Guantanamo is released by Dogwoof and in cinemas on 7 October 2011. 

Bobby Fischer Against The World

The young Bobby Fischer

From the urban jungle (think Boaz Yakin’s hugely underrated Fresh and latterly HBO’s The Wire) to nothing less portentous than existence itself (The Seventh Seal), chess has a rich history of being used by visual storytellers to expound on the complexity of human experience. Continuing the trend with the illuminating documentary Bobby Fischer Against The World, director Liz Garbus paints a compelling, thematically rich yet sometimes frustrating portrait of the titular genius whose obsession with the sport gave way to deep psychological problems, and ultimately consigned him to a spiritual and spatial wilderness.

The film’s opening sequence sets the scene for the ambiguity which follows, as a sound collage of competing voices variously praise Fischer’s singular talent or dismiss him as aloof and arrogant. Leading up to his epic, and ultimately successful World Championship battle with the Russian master Boris Spassky, Garbus skilfully weaves the story of his troubled upbringing and family life (replete with an impressive collection of archive footage and photographs) with a range of contextual interviews with contemporaries and chess experts.

Fischer’s thrilling 1972 battle with Spassky in incongruous Iceland is the documentary’s dramatic peak, full of tension, high skill and the type of mind games that would make Kevin Keegan spontaneously combust. Like a regular king of the swingers, however, it became clear that following his vanquishing of Spassky (who retired midway through the mentally exhausting series), Fischer had reached the top and had to stop and that – amongst other things which later became apparent – was bothering him. When a new challenger emerged, Fischer, at just 29, gave up the crown and disappeared into a life of eccentricity.

Bobby Fischer Against the World is at its most fascinating when exploring the political context which framed his rise to prominence. Whilst the Soviets manufactured a plethora of chess genii and freely funded their talent, Fischer stood as a lone American, a one-man intellectual militia in the fight against Communism, who was simultaneously single-handedly responsible for the explosion in popularity of the sport in the United States and a powerful political tool (incredibly, Henry Kissinger personally telephoned the reluctant star to persuade him to play). Furthermore, the earthy quality and colour of the archive film stock and period fashion evokes gritty, political 70s thrillers The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor, whilst the socially awkward, obsessively private Fischer is hauntingly analagous to Gene Hackman’s tortured surveillance expert Harry Caul from Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece The Conversation (released two years after Fischer achieved the pinnacle of his success) – the fully-fleshed paradigm of Watergate-era paranoia.

Following the abdication of his crown, Fischer’s story becomes simultaneously sad and distancing, as the subject slips from compellingly enigmatic to entirely unfathomable and intensely dislikable. The effective, if predictable, period soundtrack of the film’s first half (‘Theme from Shaft‘, ‘Get It On’ by T-Rex) gives way to maudlin, stressful strings, and the thrilling chess matches are replaced by a bemusing account of how the Jewish Fischer turned to virulent anti-semitism and bearded, irascible crankiness. Interview footage of an exiled Fischer crowing over the 9/11 tragedy (“America got what was coming to it”) makes it extremely hard to empathize with the man, yet the detailed patchwork Garbus has woven always reminds us of the mental fragility of this once-great individual. One interviewee intriguingly suggests an almost natural progression from the near-infinite possibilities of the game of chess into the vagaries of conspiracy theory, where anything is possible and nothing can be concretely disproved.

Bobby Fischer Against The World is appropriately titled; a tough portrait of a cussed, difficult man forever butting heads with anyone who crossed his path. If it never quite gets to grips with its subject, Garbus can’t really be blamed, for it is surely an impossible task to pin down a man so evidently lost to himself. This documentary is a rewarding watch which underlines the oft-symbiotic relationship between genius and madness, and raises the spectre of depression in the context of competitive sport.

Released by Dogwoof PicturesBobby Fischer Against The World is showing in selected cinemas and will be released on DVD on September 12.